President Barack Obama’s announcement that the United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and open an embassy in Havana did not officially end the US embargo on Cuba, but it certainly thawed relations between governments at odds with each other for more than 50 years.
The idea of normalized relations is one Obama has been talking about publicly for at least the past decade. As an Illinois state senator, he told a crowd at Southern Illinois University in 2004 that he thought it was “time for us [the US] to end the embargo with Cuba.”
Speaking to the Cuban National American Foundation in Miami in 2008 as a presidential candidate, Obama (by then a US senator) spoke more of pressuring Havana on issues of political prisoners and human rights than on ending the embargo.
Only months prior, in a CNN presidential debate, he had told moderator Campbell Brown that he would meet with the Castro leadership “without preconditions.”
Beginning in 2009, in his first year as president, Obama began to roll back his stance on ending the embargo and engaging in talks with the Cuban government. Instead, he announced new, soft policies on travel and remittances that freed Cuban-Americans to visit and send money to family members in Cuba.
In 2011, he told a White House roundtable that the embargo would be lifted only after the Cuban government carried out significant reforms.
In January of last year, he revisited the issue in an interview with Telemundo’s Cuban-American anchor, José Diaz Balart. Obama told Balart that the government would not end the embargo until Cuba freed political prisoners and opened up its political system.
In September 2014, Obama quietly signed a one-year extension of the embargo—giving comedian John Oliver occasion to blast the president’s contradictory positions on Cuba, during a segment on Oliver’s HBO show Last Week Tonight.
We now know that, at the time, the US government was engaged in secret negotiations with Havana that were facilitated by Canada and the Vatican.
Which brings us to today’s announcement, where the president personally thanked Pope Francis and the Canadian government for their roles as mediators, and effectively ended a long stretch of diplomatic hostility between the US and Cuba. “We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and, instead, we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Obama said.