The United States and Cuba have announced that they have formally re-established diplomatic relations after 54-year freeze and would reopen embassies in their respective capitals from July 20, a major step towards normalisation of ties between the Cold War foes.
"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 reopen embassies in our respective countries," US President Barack Obama said in the Rose Garden of the White House.
"This is a historic step forward in our efforts to normalise relations with the Cuban government and people, and begin a new chapter with our neighbors in the Americas," he said in his statement to the press, with Vice President Joe Biden standing by his side.
Last December Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro had agreed to restore long-broken ties between their two countries.
According to reports from Havana, the Cuban foreign ministry said it "confirms the decision to restore diplomatic relations between the two countries and open permanent diplomatic missions in their respective capitals, from July 20."
The US' top diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis delivered a letter from the White House about restoring the embassies to Cuba's foreign ministry in Havana today.
It is the latest major milestone in a thawing process between the two countries' relations, which started with secret negotiations and was announced last December.
Both countries are currently represented by interests sections, and US and Cuban diplomats are not allowed to go out of Havana and Washington without official authorisation from the host countries.
In a major breakthrough in late May, the US had removed Cuba from a blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism.
Plans to resume ferry and air services between the US and Cuba were announced recently.
The US broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1959 after Fidel Castro and his brother Raul led a revolution toppling US-backed President Fulgencio Batista.
The Castros established a revolutionary socialist state with close ties to the Soviet Union.
Reopening of the embassies would mark the end of a more than 50 years of animosity.
The diplomatic relations broke off in 1961.
Obama's historic announcement today was immediately criticised by the Republican leadership including several of its presidential candidates.
"The Obama administration is handing the Castros a lifetime dream of legitimacy without getting a thing for the Cuban people being oppressed by this brutal communist dictatorship," John Boehner, Speaker of the US House of Representatives said.
"As I've said before, relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalised, until Cubans enjoy freedom – and not one second sooner."
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential candidate, described this as a "prized concession" to the alleged oppressive Castro regime.
"I intend to oppose the confirmation of an Ambassador to Cuba until these issues are addressed. It is time for our unilateral concessions to this odious regime to end," he said.
"The reopening of US and Cuban embassies is the latest step in President Obama's normalisation of relations with the Castro regime, and the most recent example of this president's foreign policy that ignores reality in exchange for surface level political wins. The truth is that since the Castro brothers assumed power in 1959, their policies have changed very little," said Rick Perry, another Republican presidential candidate.
"Instead of supporting democracy and opportunity for the Cuban people, our efforts to isolate Cuba, despite good intentions, increasingly had the opposite effect, cementing
the status quo and isolating the United States from our neighbours in this hemisphere," Obama said in defence of his decision.
"The progress that we mark today is yet another demonstration that we don't have to be imprisoned by the past. When something isn't working, we can and will change," he said.
Obama said Secretary of State John Kerry would be travelling to Havana later this summer to fly the American flag at its new Embassy in Cuba.
Image: US President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden, announces the restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington July 1, 2015. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters