Barack Obama
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) listens while President Barack Obama (R) speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House, July 1, 2015. Obama announced plans to reopen the U.S. Embassy in Havana in an effort to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cold War enemy Cuba. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama formally announced Wednesday that the United States and Cuba had reached an agreement to restore diplomatic relations for the first time since 1961. U.S. and Cuban embassies will open in Washington and Havana as of July 20.

“When the United States shuttered our embassy in 1961, I don’t think anyone expected it would be more than half a century before it reopened...This is not merely symbolic. With this change, we will be able to substantially increase our contacts with the Cuban people,” Obama said. “The progress that we mark today is yet another demonstration that we don’t have to be imprisoned by the past,” the president added.

Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Havana later this month for a formal raising of the American flag at the U.S. Embassy. Renewed communication will allow the United States and Cuba to coordinate on issues of common interest, such as disaster response and counterterrorism, Obama said.

The president called on members of Congress to lift the economic embargo against Cuba, so that American businesses and universities could pursue opportunities on the island. “Americans and Cubans alike are ready to move forward. I believe it’s time for Congress to do the same,” Obama said.

Obama added that restored diplomacy would not prevent the United States from being critical of the Cuban government should it pursue questionable policies, such as suppression of freedom of speech or assembly.

"We applaud this important step in bringing the U.S. and Cuba closer together and urge Congress to hasten the day when American travelers and companies have the freedom to engage with one of our nearest neighbors,” said James Williams, president of the Engage Cuba Coalition, which supports renewed economic ties with Cuba. “Opening embassies in Washington and Havana is an important step toward the day when Americans can make their own decisions on where they travel, and our businesses can compete with the rest of the world.”

The Cuban government released a statement Wednesday morning calling for the U.S. to relinquish its control of the Guantanamo Bay military base and to end “subversive” efforts on the island, Reuters reported. The statement said these measures were crucial to re-establish full diplomatic relations.

The United States has not had an embassy in Cuba since 1961, when then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations after Fidel Castro seized power in an armed revolution. The Obama administration and the Cuban government concurrently announced plans to normalize relations last December, after 18 months of negotiations brokered by the Catholic Pope Francis and Canada, Reuters reports.