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US flag to fly over Havana again, but that won't end America's Cuba debate (+video)

Cuba is one of a number of key foreign-policy issues in which President Obama has sought to get beyond what he has seen as mistaken policies of the past. The approach has been vaunted by some, vilified by others.

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Retired airplane painter Ernesto Arias (l.) and accountant Carola Suarez sit under a picture of former Cuban President Fidel Castro to watch US President Barack Obama's statement about Cuba on television, at the Eterna Juventud (Eternal Youth) retirement home in Havana, Cuba, July 1.

Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

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The United States and Cuba may have agreed Wednesday to open embassies in each other’s capital for the first time in half a century, but that doesn’t mean it will be all salsa music and humdrum diplomacy between the two longtime adversaries anytime soon.

President Obama emphasized that “very serious differences” remain between the two neighboring countries, particularly on human rights and democracy, as he announced a long-awaited accord between the two governments Wednesday. The agreement will allow each country’s existing diplomatic offices in Washington and Havana to reopen as full-fledged embassies as of July 20.

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“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 and support for democracy and human rights,” Mr. Obama said Wednesday in a Rose Garden speech.

Cuba is one of a number of key foreign-policy issues – Iran and Iraq also come to mind – in which Obama has sought to get beyond what he has seen as mistaken policies of the past. Such a foreign policy emphasizes trying diplomacy where, to the president’s thinking, isolation and unilateral action have not worked. And in each instance, whether Cuba or Iran, it is still being hotly debated, with some vaunting and others vilifying the approach.

That debate promises to figure prominently in the 2016 presidential election, and the emotional topic of Cuba is sure to stand out.

On Wednesday, several Republican presidential hopefuls – most notably two from Florida, with its politically crucial Cuban-American population – were quick to blast the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba as a gift to a repressive regime.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said diplomatic ties “will legitimize repression in Cuba, not promote the cause of freedom and democracy.”

Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio criticized the Obama administration for being so eager to open an embassy in Havana that it has “continued to look the other way and offer concession after concession” as the Cuban government “has stepped up its repression of the Cuban people.”

Insisting the US got nothing from the Cubans in the six months of negotiations since Obama announced his intention to renew diplomatic relations, Senator Rubio said, “It is time for our unilateral concessions to this odious regime to end.”

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That theme of the US giving up much to an adversary for little or nothing in return can also be heard in reference to Iran and the negotiations to limit its nuclear program.

Most Democrats, on the other hand, hailed the reopening of the Havana and Washington embassies by echoing Obama’s foreign-policy conviction that America’s isolation of adversaries does little to resolve differences with them – while causing problems with allies who oppose unilateral steps like the 50-year-old US trade embargo on Cuba.

“Embargo and isolation failed to bring fundamental change to Cuba and have instead become a source of friction between the United States and our partners in the Western Hemisphere and across the globe,” said Sen. Christopher Murphy (D) of Connecticut in a statement.

Preserving America’s global stature, Senator Murphy added, “depends on strong diplomatic relationships and a willingness to learn from both our successes and our ... missteps in particular – from the failed isolation of Cuba to the disastrous occupation of Iraq.”

What Congress is expected to do

Even as the political debate over Cuba continues, the Republican-controlled Congress is expected to try to thwart Obama’s opening to Cuba as best it can – largely through its control of government purse strings.

Congress can’t stop the reestablishing of full diplomatic ties with Cuba. On Wednesday, in fact, Secretary of State John Kerry said he will travel to Havana “later this summer” to mark both “the raising of the Stars and Stripes” over the embassy and “the beginning of a new era of a new relationship with the Cuban people.”

It will be the first time since 1945 that a secretary of State has visited Havana, Mr. Kerry noted.

Still, Congress can continue to place roadblocks on the way to a deeper US diplomatic presence in Cuba.

A number of funding bills for US government departments have been amended in the House to limit any expansion of operations in Cuba. Most critically, State Department funding for US diplomats operating in Cuba has been frozen – even though the State Department won Havana’s OK to boost the number of US diplomats in Cuba as part of the transition to a full-fledged embassy.

“It would be a shame if Congress impeded implementation of some of the very things we all agree we want to do,” says a senior State Department official, referring to the ability to “reach out all over the island” with a beefed-up embassy staff.

The US also won the right to add additional agencies to the US diplomatic presence in Cuba – in particular law enforcement agencies – that were not allowed in the existing US Interests Section in Havana. A law enforcement presence will allow the US to directly address the issue of fugitives from US justice in Cuba, the State Department says.

“I would assume most on the Hill would agree those are good things to do,” adds the senior official, who spoke with reporters on the condition of anonymity.

Americans’ views about the moves

While the political debate over Cuba may continue unabated, administration officials can proceed with expanding the US presence in Cuba knowing that most Americans appear to agree that’s “a good thing to do.”

A number of recent polls indicate that a majority of Americans across the political spectrum support Obama’s renewing of ties with Cuba.

A Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll released Wednesday found that a majority of Americans believe the renewed relations with Cuba will be beneficial to both countries. In particular, varying majorities believe the US opening to Cuba will boost Cubans’ prosperity, boost the US image in the world, and help improve human rights and political freedoms in Cuba.

And a solid two thirds of Americans support ending the US trade embargo on Cuba, according to the Chicago poll – something only Congress can do.