US and Cuba officially restore full diplomatic relations as embassy re-opens after half century
More than five decades of Cold War and lingering enmity have come to an end as the United States and Cuba restored full diplomatic relations.
The new era of US-Cuba relations began today with little fanfare in Washington and Havana as the terms of an agreement resuming full ties from midnight local time came into force.
The Cuban flag will be hung quietly in the lobby of the US State Department alongside those of other nations with which America has diplomatic relations.
The shift will be memorialised publicly later when Cuban officials formally reopen their embassy in Washington.
US secretary of state John Kerry will then meet his Cuban counterpart and address reporters at a joint news conference.
The US Interests Section in Havana plans to announce its upgrade to embassy status in a written statement, but the Stars and Stripes will not fly at the mission until Mr Kerry visits in August for a ceremonial flag-raising.
And yet, though normalisation has taken centre stage in the US-Cuba relationship, there remains a deep ideological gulf between the nations and many issues still to resolve. Among them are thorny disputes such as over mutual claims for economic reparations, Havana's insistence on the end of the 53-year-old trade embargo and US calls for Cuba to improve on human rights and democracy.
Some US politicians, including several prominent Republican presidential candidates, have vowed not to repeal the embargo and pledged to roll back US president Barack Obama's moves on Cuba.
Still, today's events cap a remarkable change of course in US policy towards the communist island under Mr Obama, who had sought rapprochement with Cuba since he first took office and has progressively loosened restrictions on travel and remittances to the island.
Mr Obama's efforts at engagement were frustrated for years by Cuba's imprisonment of US Agency for International Development contractor Alan Gross on espionage charges.
But months of secret negotiations led in December to Mr Gross's release, along with a number of political prisoners in Cuba and the remaining members of a Cuban spy ring jailed in the United States.
On December 17, Mr Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro announced they would resume full diplomatic relations.
Declaring the long-standing policy a failure that had not achieved any of its intended results, Mr Obama declared that the US could not keep doing the same thing and expect a change so work would begin apace on normalisation.
That process dragged on until the US removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism in late May and then bogged down over issues of US diplomats' access to ordinary Cubans.
On July 1 however, the issues were resolved and the US and Cuba exchanged diplomatic notes agreeing that the date for the restoration of full relations would be July 20.
"It's a historic moment," said long-time Cuban diplomat and analyst Carlos Alzugaray.
"The significance of opening the embassies is that trust and respect that you can see, both sides treating the other with trust and respect.
"That doesn't mean there aren't going to be conflicts - there are bound to be conflicts - but the way that you treat the conflict has completely changed."
Cuba's ceremony at the stately 16th Street mansion in Washington that has been operating as an interests section under the auspices of the Swiss embassy will be attended by some 500 guests, including a 30-member delegation of diplomatic, cultural and other leaders from the Caribbean nation, headed by foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez.
The US will be represented at the event by assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs Roberta Jacobson, who led US negotiators in six months of talks leading to the July 1 announcement, and Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the chief of the US Interests Section in Havana, who will now become charge d'affaires.
Although the Interests Section in Havana will not see the pomp and circumstance of a flag-raising, workers there have already drilled holes on the exterior to hang signage flown in from the US, and arranged to print new business cards and letterhead that say "Embassy" instead of "Interests Section".
What for years was a lonely flagpole outside the glassy six-story edifice on Havana's seafront Malecon boulevard recently got a revamp, complete with a paved walkway.
Every day for the last week, employees have been hanging hand-lettered signs on the fence counting down, in Spanish, to today: "In 6 days we will become an embassy!" and so on.
Both interests sections have technically operated as part of Switzerland's embassies in Washington and Havana. The Swiss also were caretakers for the former American embassy and ambassador's residence from 1961 to 1977, when the US had no diplomatic presence in the country at all.
The Cuban Interests Section in Washington switched its Twitter account to say "embassy" - one of a series of similar changes being made to the two country's social media accounts.
Conrad Tribble, deputy chief of mission for the United States in Havana, tweeted: "Just made first phone call to State Dept Ops Center from United States Embassy Havana ever. It didn't exist in Jan 1961."