Obama formally opens US diplomatic ties with Cuba

WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama said on Wednesday the United States had agreed to the historic step of re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba and will raise its flag over a US Embassy in Havana later this summer.

"This is a historic step forward in our efforts to normalize relations with the Cuban government and people and begin a new chapter with our neighbors in the Americas," Obama said in a statement delivered in the White House Rose Garden.

"A year ago it might have seemed impossible that the United States would be once again raising our flag, the Stars and Stripes, over an embassy in Havana."

Obama said the controversial move would allow the United States to have more influence over its former enemy and he urged Congress to go a step further by lifting the U.S. embargo on the island.

Obama made a point of saying Washington would not shy away from highlighting continuing disagreements over human rights and other issues.

"We will also continue to have some very serious differences," he said. "That will include America's enduring support for universal values like freedom of speech and assembly, and the ability to access information. And we will not hesitate to speak out when we see actions that contradict those values."

The move is a victory for the president, who campaigned for the White House in 2008 on a foreign policy platform of reaching out to U.S. foes.

"With this change, we will be able to substantially increase our contacts with the Cuban people," he said. "We will have more personnel at our embassy and our diplomats will have the ability to engage more broadly across the island."

That influence may not be warmly welcomed in Havana. The Cuban government issued a statement on Wednesday asking the United States to stop its radio and TV broadcasts into the country, end "subversive" programs there and return the U.S. military base in Guantanamo to Cuba.

Obama, who is focused increasingly on his legacy as his term in office winds down, noted the popularity of the change among Americans eager to travel to the island and among Cubans eager to have closer ties. He urged Congress to heed those feelings when considering the embargo lift.

"Americans and Cubans alike are ready to move forward. I believe it's time for Congress to do the same," he said.

"Listen to the Cuban people, listen to the American people." (Reporting by Jeff Mason and Roberta Rampton; Additional reporting by Megan Cassella and Idrees Ali; Editing by Bill Trott)