By Alejandro Freixes, CCNN Head Writer
On July 20, the American embassy in Havana and the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C. reopened for the first time in more than half a century. This marks the official reopening of diplomatic relations between the two nations, after President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro officially sealed the deal earlier this month. Top USA diplomat John Kerry will become the first Secretary of State to visit Cuba in 70 years, during his August trip to Havana, the capital.
This latest development comes months after the first USA-Cuba talks in 50 years at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, and Cuba is already enjoying international benefits from its newfound status.
Since Catholic leader Pope Francis helped bridge the USA-Cuba divide, Castro visited the church’s headquarters at the Vatican in May, where he became inspired to convert. Shortly thereafter, he welcomed French President François Hollande to the Cuban capital of Havana, where they discussed ending trade restrictions between the USA and the island nation.
See, the USA used to have a lot of economic and political influence in Cuba, until the Revolution of 1959 where Fidel Castro overthrew the government and became an all-powerful communist dictator. In 1960, the USA placed economic restrictions on Cuba called an embargo, limiting their ability to trade and make money. At the time, the USA and Soviet Russia were involved in a Cold War that lasted from 1947 to 1991, and Castro allied himself with the Soviets. He allowed the Soviets to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, a mere 90 miles from the USA. This triggered a 13-day standoff called the Cuban missile crisis that almost escalated into global nuclear war.
The Soviet Union eventually crumbled, while Cuba sank into poverty and ruin over the past five decades. Cuba even ended up on America’s state-sponsored terrorism list, which names countries that support violent extremists. After Fidel Castro became ill in 2006, his brother Raul took over, but the USA continued its embargo to weaken the Cuban government.
This past December, Obama announced that the USA was going to reopen its embassy in Havana, exchange political prisoners with Cuba, and ease trade restrictions. However, he still needs the support of lawmakers in Congress to fully lift the embargo and the ban on traveling. That will be a tough battle, since Republicans took control of Congress in the Midterm Elections last year and they’re opposed to diplomatic relations with Cuba.
The deal was reached after a year of secret negotiations between the USA and Cuba, with the help of Canada and Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church. Obama’s decision is controversial, especially among Cuban-American refugees who fled Castro’s harsh government and politicians who believe the decision unjustly rewards an oppressive government.
At the Summit of the Americas, Obama reassured leaders from Central America, South America, and the Caribbean that the USA would help countries be prosperous, so long as they respected the human rights of their citizens and didn’t threaten America. Obama even shook hands with Raul and said, “Over time, it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship between our two countries.” Cuba was also removed from the USA’s state-sponsored terrorism list, to improve diplomatic relations.
Following Castro’s trip to the Vatican, the Cuban President said, “If the Pope continues to speak like this, sooner or later I will start praying again and I will return to the Catholic Church – and I’m not saying this jokingly.” He also felt “very impressed by his knowledge, his wisdom, modesty, and by all the virtues that we know he has.”
Featured image courtesy of USA’s Department of State Twitter. Image of Cuban citizens courtesy of Matias Garabedian on Flickr. Image of Cuba and Florida courtesy of Google Earth.