A year of strengthening U.S.-Cuba ties

Though separated by just 140 kilometers of water, the United States and Cuba have endured strained relations for more than half a century.  In 2015, the two countries began to chart a new course. Early on, the two nations agreed to manage their agenda through a bilateral commission.

Man on ladder dusting wall decoration (© AP Images)
An embassy officer polishes an image of the Great Seal of the United States inside the newly reopened embassy. (© AP Images)

Re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba allow the United States to more effectively represent its interests and values. Cuba’s future is for Cuba’s citizens to decide. The United States believes Cuba should be peaceful, prosperous and democratic.

John Kerry, marines and other people looking at the U.S. flag (© AP Images)
Secretary of State John Kerry, the retired marines who lowered the flag in 1961 and others observe as U.S. Marines begin to raise the U.S. flag over the newly re-opened embassy in Havana on August 14, 2015. (© AP Images)
Swimming Caribbean reef sharks (Getty Images/Reinhard Dirscherl)
A Caribbean reef shark, Carcharhinus perezi, swims in Cuba’s waters. (Getty Images/Reinhard Dirscherl)

The United States and Cuba are working together to protect the environment and safeguard fragile marine protected areas. The countries signed a joint statement on environmental protection cooperation and a memorandum establishing a long-term, cooperative relationship between marine protected areas in Cuba, Florida and the Gulf of Mexico in November 2015.

Woman carrying flowers approaching man by a red car (© AP Images)
Flower vendor Yaime Gonzalez Matos has joined Cuba’s small class of independent entrepreneurs. She lifts daisies into a rented car. (© AP Images)

While most businesses in Cuba are still state-run, there is a small but burgeoning private sector. The Obama administration has taken a number of steps within its executive authority to ease certain travel, trade and financial transaction restrictions applicable to Cuba. The four tranches of regulatory changes over the past 19 months have made it easier for people in the United States to engage with Cubans, and to provide resources and share information that can help Cuba’s private sector continue to grow.

People embracing (© AP Images)
A joyous family reunion at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana for Cuban Americans who flew from Miami on September 18, 2015 (© AP Images)

New U.S. Department of the Treasury regulations help U.S. families send money to their relatives in Cuba. Direct mail, one key to increasing social and commercial ties between the two neighbors, resumed on March 16, 2016, after a 53-year hiatus.

On June 10, the U.S. Department of Transportation approved the applications of six U.S. airlines to schedule flights between five U.S. cities and nine Cuban cities (not including Havana) as early as this fall. On July 7, the department issued a proposal for eight U.S. airlines to begin scheduled service between Havana and 10 U.S. cities. A final decision on Havana routes is expected later this summer.

In his March 22 speech, President Obama underscored how reconciliation of Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits is fundamental to Cuba’s future.

People standing on a pink car waving at a cruise ship (AFP/Getty/Adalberto Roque)
Cubans give an enthusiastic welcome as the Carnival Cruise ship Adonia glides into the port of Havana on May 2, 2016. (AFP/Getty/Adalberto Roque)
Raul Castro and Barack Obama walking past a line of military personnel (AFP/Getty)
Cuban President Raul Castro and U.S. President Obama at the Revolutionary Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016 (AFP/Getty)

President Obama’s March visit demonstrated the U.S. commitment to normalizing relations with Cuba. While there, Obama spoke directly to the Cuban people about continued support for a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Cuba.

President Obama, Malia Obama and others in rain with umbrellas (Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)
Despite the rain, President Obama traveled with the first family on a historic three-day visit, which included sightseeing in Old Havana in March 2016. (Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)

After touching down in Cuba, Obama wrote to the White House email list, “It’s humbling to be the first U.S. president in nearly 90 years to visit a country and a people just 90 miles [140 kilometers] from our shores.” The last U.S. president to visit Cuba was Calvin Coolidge in 1928.