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World

U.S. And Cuba To Formally Re-Establish Diplomatic Ties

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

For the first time since Dwight Eisenhower was president, the United States will have an embassy in Cuba. The two countries are expected to announce this morning that they'll open embassies in Havana and Washington, D.C. This comes six months after President Obama and President Raul Castro embarked on a thaw in relations. NPR's Michele Kelemen is following these developments, and she's on the line now. Good morning.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: It is certainly a big moment symbolically. But how important is it that these embassies are opening?

KELEMEN: Well, it is a concrete sign of normal diplomatic ties, to have a functioning embassy both in Havana and for the Cubans to have that sort of high-level representation here. At the moment, what they have are called interest sections. And there are a lot of limits on what diplomats can do in those and strict limits on the number of Americans, for instance, who can work there in Havana. So the plan is, at least for the U.S., is that 15 days after the White House informs Congress - so just over two weeks from now - that U.S. interest section can officially become a full-fledged embassy. And we're likely to see Secretary of State John Kerry go to Havana to mark that occasion later this month.

MONTAGNE: And many members of Congress, though, oppose normalizing relations with Cuba. Can they do anything to stop an embassy from opening?

KELEMEN: Well, they can hold up funds for the embassy. And I'm told that the building does need a lot of work. So that could be a problem. Congress could also slow down the confirmation of any future U.S. ambassador. The diplomat who runs that interest section now is a man named Jeffrey DeLaurentis. He's a well-respected career Foreign Service officer. And he could certainly stay on. But if President Obama wants a new nominee, that person would face an uphill battle, meaning the Senate Florida Republican Marco Rubio has already said he's going to oppose any ambassador as long as Cuba doesn't clean up its human rights record. And in the House, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, another Cuban-American who lives in Florida, says she thinks this whole idea of reopening embassies is just, in her words, an attempt by President Obama to go legacy shopping.

MONTAGNE: Michele, in the months since President Obama embraced improved relations with Cuba, how much has the U.S. done?

KELEMEN: Cuba got off the State Department's state sponsors of terrorism list. That was a big deal, something Havana has long sought and helped the interest section here get a bank account. The White House has also eased U.S. travel and trade restrictions. But the president has gone about as far as he can go on this. To fully lift the embargo, he would need Congress to act and to have more normal ties. There are a lot of issues that have to be resolved. Human rights is one of them and also U.S. fugitives that are in Cuba right now.

MONTAGNE: Michele, thanks very much.

KELEMEN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen on the expected announcement that the U.S. and Cuba will reopen embassies in Washington, D.C. and Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.