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US and Cuba restore diplomatic ties

Tourism will be one of the beneficiaries of the thaw in US-Cuba relations Keystone

The United States and Cuba have agreed to establish diplomatic relations and open economic and travel ties. At this stage it is unclear how these changes will affect Switzerland, which has acted as a diplomatic middle-man for the two nations for decades. 

The US and Cuba announced the shift in policy after a series of new confidence-building measures between the long-time enemies, including the release of American Alan Gross, as well as a swap for a US intelligence asset held in Cuba and the freeing of three Cubans jailed in the US. 

In a speech at the White House, Obama said the thaw in relations after a five-decade freeze is being made after he determined the “rigid” and outdated policy of the past failed to have an impact on Cuba. “Today we are making these changes because it is the right thing to do. Today America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past, so as to reach for a better future, for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere, and for the world,” he said. 

Cuban President Raul Castro says he welcomes the restoration of relations with the United States. In a nationally broadcast speech, the Cuban leader says profound differences remain between Cuba and the U.S. in areas such as human rights, foreign policy and questions of sovereignty. But he says the countries have to learn to live with their differences “in a civilized manner.” 

The two leaders reportedly spoke by phone for more than 45 minutes on Tuesday, the first substantive presidential-level discussion between the US and Cuba since 1961. 

Wednesday’s announcements follow more than a year of secret talks between American and Cuban officials in Canada and the Vatican. Pope Francis was involved in the process. 

Switzerland’s unique role

As part of the resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba, the US will soon reopen an embassy in the capital of Havana and carry out high-level exchanges and visits between the governments. 

It is unclear how these changes will affect Switzerland, which serves as a Protecting Power for both the US and Cuba. The task of the Protecting Power is to maintain – in agreement with the States concerned – the minimum necessary level of contact between two States that have broken off bilateral relations. 

Switzerland has represented US interests in Cuba since January 6, 1961 and Cuban interests in the US since April 1, 1991. 

In a statement the Swiss foreign ministry welcomed the shift in policy but said it did not have sufficient information to “decide what possible consequences it would have on Switzerland’s Protecting Power mandate”.

As a Protecting Power, Switzerland’s mandate has basically two aspects: firstly, to deal with the consular matters such as receiving passport applications, authenticating birth and marriage certificates, and taking care of nationals  held in detention; secondly, Switzerland provides a reliable channel for diplomatic communication between the sending and the receiving States and thus encourages dialogue between the two governments in the absence of formal relations. 

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR