July 2, 2015 at 12:54 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
U.S., Cuba to reopen embassies

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana is poised to become the country's embassy on the Communist island with President Obama's announcement on July 1, 2015, that the two countries have formally restored diplomatic relations. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana is poised to become the country’s embassy on the Communist island with President Obama’s announcement on July 1, 2015, that the two countries have formally restored diplomatic relations. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The U.S. and Cuba on Wednesday announced they will restore full diplomatic relations later this month with the reopening of embassies in their respective capitals.

President Obama in a letter to Cuban President Raúl Castro wrote that the U.S. and Cuba “have decided to re-establish diplomatic relations and permanent diplomatic missions in our respective countries” on July 20. Castro confirmed the announcement in his own letter to Obama.

Obama told reporters from the White House Rose Garden that Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Havana later this summer “to proudly raise the American flag over our embassy once more.”

“With this change, we will be able to substantially increase our contacts with the Cuban people,” said Obama. “We’ll have more personnel at our embassy. And our diplomats will have the ability to engage more broadly across the island. That will include the Cuban government, civil society and ordinary Cubans who are reaching for a better life.”

Obama last December announced the U.S. would begin to normalize relations with Cuba.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — who met with Juana Mora Cedeño, an independent Cuban LGBT rights advocate, in February during her trip to Havana with gay Congressman David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and other members of the U.S. House of Representatives — on Wednesday welcomed the reopening of embassies in the two countries.

“Today, we recognize that the absence of a U.S. Embassy in Cuba serves neither the strategic interests of our nation, nor the democratic aspirations of the Cuban people,” said Pelosi in a statement. “Reopening embassies lays the foundation for a new, more productive relationship with Cuba that can support and advance key American priorities — including human rights, counter-narcotics cooperation, business opportunities for American companies, migration, family unification, and cultural and faith-based exchanges.”

Alain Darcout, a gay Cuban psychologist and doctor who advocates for LGBT rights on the Communist island, told the Washington Blade he feels full diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba will benefit both countries. He noted Cuban LGBT rights advocates will be able to learn from their American counterparts who successfully fought for same-sex marriage and other issues.

“Aside from the exchange of experiences and knowledge in this common fight for the respect of our rights, the history of this movement in the U.S.A. is impressive,” Darcout told the Blade in a Facebook message from Ecuador where he is currently working.

Freedom to Work President Tico Almeida, who is Cuban American, also welcomed the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

“I’m one of many Cuban Americans applauding this important step by President Obama,” Almeida told the Blade.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a Cuban-born Republican who champions LGBT rights, is among those who blasted Obama on Wednesday.

Herb Sosa, a first-generation Cuban American who is president of the Unity Coalition, a Miami-based LGBT advocacy group, highlighted to the Blade that two police officers on Sunday refused to allow the organizer of an independent Pride march in Havana to leave his home. The advocate further noted he feels the Cuban government has not done enough to improve its human rights record during the process to normalize relations between the U.S. and the Communist island.

“Although I applaud any positive change that will benefit the people of Cuba, unfortunately this latest round of compromise by the U.S. government is completely one-sided,” Sosa told the Blade.

Obama: ‘Serious differences’ remain between two countries

The State Department’s annual human rights report that was released last week notes that Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Raúl Castro, “continued to be outspoken in promoting” LGBT rights in 2014 as director of the country’s National Center for Sexual Education.

Mariela Castro’s group, known by the Spanish acronym CENESEX, in May sponsored a series of events in Havana and Las Tunas that commemorated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Independent Cuban LGBT rights advocates with whom the Blade spoke on the Communist island during that month said they continue to face harassment and persecution from the government.

Cristal, a transgender woman from Havana who is a member of the Trans Network of Cuba, which is affiliated with the National Center for Sexual Education, holds a Pride flag in Las Tunas, Cuba, on May 16, 2015, during the commemorations of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Cristal, a transgender woman from Havana who is a member of the Trans Network of Cuba, which is affiliated with the National Center for Sexual Education, holds a Pride flag in Las Tunas, Cuba, on May 16, 2015, during the commemorations of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Obama administration officials told the Blade in May that the treatment of Cuban LGBT rights advocates who publicly oppose the Castro government factored into efforts to normalize relations between Washington and Havana.

“There’s obviously overlying issues remain in terms of human rights,” said State Department spokesperson Mark Toner on Monday during his daily press briefing in response to Mariela Castro’s inclusion in the human rights report. “One of the goals of this re-engagement obviously is improving the lives of the Cuban people, all the Cuban people, and that includes addressing some of the human rights concerns we have and trying to work with the government to create a more conducive environment.”

Obama on Wednesday acknowledged the U.S. will “continue to have some very serious differences” with Cuba over freedom of speech and other issues.

“I strongly believe that the best way for America to support our values is through engagement,” he said.

Neither Mariela Castro nor CENESEX responded to the Blade’s request for comment on Wednesday.

Gay congressman voted against lifting Cuba travel restrictions

Washington severed diplomatic relations with the Communist island in 1961, two years after the Cuban Revolution toppled then-President Fulgencio Batista. The U.S. Interests Section opened in Havana in 1977.

Obama on Wednesday once again urged Congress to lift the embargo against Cuba.

Gay New York Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney last month was among the House members who voted against a resolution that would have lifted travel restrictions to Cuba. Ros-Lehtinen and other congressional critics of the normalization of relations between Washington and the Communist island have vowed to block funding for the U.S. Embassy in Havana and the nomination of an ambassador.

A Maloney spokesperson on Wednesday declined to comment on the reopening of embassies.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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