-- President Obama today hailed the start of a "new chapter" as he announced the U.S. and Cuba are opening embassies in their respective capitals later this month and formally reestablished diplomatic relations between the two countries for the first time in more than 50 years.
"More than 54 years ago at the height of the cold war, the United States closed its embassy in Havana. Today, I can announce that the United States has agreed to formally reestablish diplomatic relations with the republic of Cuba and re-open embassies in our respective countries," the president said in the Rose Garden today.
"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," the president added.
Obama said the historic announcement, which aired live on Cuban television, was "another demonstration that we don't have to be imprisoned by the past." The Cuban government announced it would open its embassy in the U.S. on July 20. The U.S. is expected to launch its embassy in Havana in late July.
Obama said Secretary of State John Kerry would travel to Havana to "proudly raise the American flag over our embassy once more." "A year ago it might have seemed impossible that the United States would once again be raising our flag, the stars and stripes, over an embassy in Havana. This is what change looks like," he said.
Obama announced his intent to move forward with restoring ties between the two countries following the December 17 prisoner exchange and humanitarian release of Alan Gross.
"Nobody expects Cuba to be transformed overnight but I believe that American engagement through our embassy, our businesses and most of all through our people is the best way to advance our interests in support for democracy and human rights," the president said.
In the next seven months, top American and Cuban diplomats have met in a series of meetings in both countries to discuss issues surrounding normalizing relations. This morning, the Chief of the interest section, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, delivered a letter from President Obama to President Raul Castro to officially re-establish diplomatic relations. While Cuban diplomat, José Ramón Cabañas, delivered the letter for the Cuban side.
According to the diplomatic notes exchanged Wednesday morning, the official date for normalized relations will be July 20th. A Senior State Department official said that date will be the official restart date and falls outside of the 15 days notification Congress needs. Following that date, either side could open their embassies.
The state department also delivered their official notification to Congress this morning, which notifies them of their intent to change the status of the interest section into an embassy.
According to a copy of the Congressional notice obtained by ABC News, the new embassy will operate as "leanly as possible," with no immediate additions to its staff -- despite the president's promise this morning to add more personnel to the embassy.
There is currently no date for secretary Kerry to travel to Cuba, but plans to for the embassy opening.
In May, the U.S. removed Cuba from the list of countries supporting terrorism, where it was listed since 1982. In April, Obama and Castro sat down for an historic meeting in Panama, the first time the two leaders engaged in a substantive conversation in-person.
The major sticking point as of the last round of talks, for Americans has been the freedom for staff to move throughout the country; for the Cubans, it was courses provided to Cuban journalists by the U.S. government at the interests section in Havana, which they say fall outside normal diplomatic activities.
According to a senior state department official travel by diplomats will be “much more free and flexible than it is now” including no longer needing to seek permission from the government to travel within the country. Instead they will just provide notification of diplomatic movement. The official saying it will make traveling and talking to the people, including dissidents, access they have not had in the past.
Opponents of the president’s Cuba strategy were quick to criticize the announcement.
“Throughout this entire negotiation, as the Castro regime has stepped up its repression of the Cuban people, the Obama Administration has continued to look the other way and offer concession after concession,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, whose parents emigrated from Cuban, said prior to the speech.
“A policy of the United States giving and the Castro brothers freely taking is not in our national interest and not a responsible approach when dealing with repressive rulers that deny freedoms to its people,” Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, said. “An already one-sided deal that benefits the Cuban regime is becoming all the more lopsided.”
A senior administration official said the U.S. might not nominate an ambassador to Cuba. Several Congressional opponents of the normalization of relations have threatened to complicate any nominations.
Senior state department official saying, that having relations with Cuba and opening embassies, will allow for better outreach and possibilities to engage in dialogue on issues still at odds, such as fugitives and law enforcement. The official sited impeding a nomination to impeding implementation of opening up Cuba to American ideals.
ABC's Ben Siegel contributed to this report.