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5 Things To Know About U.S. Reopening Its Cuba Embassy Today

07/20/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 07/19/2016 05:59 EDT
The United States and Cuba officially resume diplomatic relations today and reopen their embassies after severing ties 54 years ago. It's a new chapter in a tumultuous history between the two countries, one that took several rounds of negotiations since President Barack Obama announced in December the U.S. was changing its Cuba policy.

Agreeing on conditions for reopening the embassies was "not an easy task, given the long history of mistrust," according to a State Department official. But on June 30, Obama and Cuba's leader Raul Castro exchanged letters declaring their two countries would once again have diplomatic relations and functioning embassies effective July 20.

Some things will change, and some won't, with today's development. Here's a look at the new U.S.-Cuba relationship:

1. Where will U.S. embassy be?

The new embassy will be the old embassy in Havana. Since diplomatic relations were cut off in 1961, American diplomats there have been working out of what's called the U.S. Interests Section. Now the office will be designated an embassy. There will be some minor physical changes to mark the shift — an "Embassy of the United States" sign will go up, for example, and an American flag will be raised on the flagpole that has been bare for decades.

In the months ahead, there could be some renovations to spruce it up and to make room for more staff. While the embassy is operating now, there will be an official opening ceremony later that Secretary of State John Kerry will attend. A U.S. secretary of state has not set foot on the island since 1945.

2. What difference will embassy make?

The U.S. Interests Section had already been providing basic consular services. It had a political and economic section and had a public diplomacy program just like a real embassy. So what changes? Some of the differences are technical or symbolic in nature, others more tangible. The Swiss government, for example, had been the U.S.'s protecting power in Cuba and that will now end.

The U.S. diplomats posted in Havana will have more freedom to do their jobs. Previously, the Cuban government restricted where they could travel on the island and with whom they could meet. They would have to get approval for those activities. Now they will be notifying Cuban officials of them, not getting permission.

More freedom for diplomats will mean better services for Americans, the state department says. Because they will be able to travel and talk to Cubans more easily, the public information sheets they put together for Americans travelling to Cuba will be better, it explains. Cubans will also have more access to the American embassy under the new agreement.

3. Who is the U.S. ambassador?

Obama hasn't nominated one yet. Until he does, and until that person is confirmed, Jeff DeLaurentis is the charge d'affaires. He's been leading the Interests Section and is on his third tour in Havana. Members of Congress opposed to Obama's new Cuba policy could try to hold up the confirmation hearing for the nominee, and some have talked about trying to block any funding required for the embassy facility.

4. Can all Americans now go to Cuba?

Nope. Both the travel restrictions and trade embargo remain in place. The embargo can only be lifted by Congress. The Treasury Department still maintains 12 categories for authorized travel, so while some American citizens can get permission to go to Cuba for specific purposes, touring the beaches on vacation is not one of them. Obama wants Congress to lift the embargo, but it's a divisive issue on Capitol Hill. The president did what he could to loosen some travel and economic restrictions a few months ago.

5. Is everything back to normal?

No. Given the embargo and other major issues between Cuba and the U.S., relations are still not considered fully normalized. The U.S. says it will co-operate on issues such as law enforcement and natural disasters, but when it comes to things like human rights and freedom of information, the U.S. and Cuba are still far apart. The U.S.-run Guantanamo Bay prison remains an irritant in the relationship and has not been resolved.

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