UPDATED — American officials say the U.S. and Cuba will start talks to normalize full diplomatic relations as part of the most significant shift in U.S. policy toward the communist island in decades.
Officials say the U.S. is also looking to open an embassy in Havana in the coming months. The moves are part of an agreement between the U.S. and Cuba that also includes the release of American Alan Gross and three Cubans jailed in Florida for spying.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, said the agreement includes normalizing banking and trade ties with Cuba.
President Obama moved Wednesday to normalize relations with Cuba, tearing down the last remaining pillar of the Cold War and opening trade and travel links closed for decades.
Under measures announced by the administration, the United States plans to re-open its embassy in Havana and significantly ease restrictions on travel and commerce within the next several weeks and months.
“Isolation has not worked,” Obama said in a televised address from the White House. “It’s time for a new approach.”
The history-shaping overtures come after more than 18 months of secret negotiations with the Cuban government of President Raul Castro. The final touches appeared to be arrangements for a series of simultaneous prisoner releases.
Cuba’s agreed to release Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor imprisoned for five years, and an unnamed U.S. intelligence asset held for two decades. In exchange, U.S. officials released three Cuban nationals convicted of spying in 2001.
Although Obama has the power to establish diplomatic relations, the move was the latest in a series of steps he has taken to use executive powers to circumvent legislative opposition.
“We extend a hand of friendship” to Cuba, Obama said.
In a hard-edged appraisal of U.S. policies, Obama also noted that decades of embargoes and isolation against Cuba failed to topple its communist system and at times spilled back against U.S. interests in the region.
“We do not believe we can keep doing the same thing over five decades and expect a different result,” he said.
Earlier, a White House statement said the U.S. stance against Cuba alienated Washington from “regional and international partners.”
Cuba released American Alan Gross as part of a prisoner swap that could herald broader discussions on strengthening ties and perhaps ending the decades-long U.S. economic embargo against its long-time communist foe. (AP)
As Obama spoke, Castro addressed the Cuban people with promises of a new chapter in relations with Washington, but also noting that there are hard issues to work through.
The U.S. embargo “continues to create economic damage to our country. It must stop,” Castro said.
“We recognize we have profound differences, especially in the areas of national sovereignty, democracy, human rights and foreign relations,” Castro said.
But he said the countries have to learn to live with their differences “in a civilized manner.”
Across Havana, church bells rang as he spoke.
The outreach does more than break down one of the enduring legacies of the Cold War. It also reverberates across many political frontiers where the standoff between Washington and Havana played a role — from snubs against the United States by Cuba’s Latin American allies to the hero’s welcome given then-President Fidel Castro during a visit to Tehran in 2001.
The final elements of the deal were cemented in a telephone conversation Tuesday between Obama and Castro — the first direct communication between a U.S. and Cuban leader since relations were severed in January 1961.
Officials said the call followed secret channel talks begun in June last year between White House and Cuban officials in a series of meetings held in Canada. The final planning meeting was held in November at the Vatican, where officials said Pope Francis had been instrumental in facilitating agreement.
The issue of Cuban relations, and particularly Gross’s imprisonment, was discussed during Obama’s meeting with the Pope in March. Francis subsequently made a personal appeal to both Obama and Castro in letters sent early this summer.
The Vatican “has been deeply involved in this whole negotiation with the prisoners and played a key role,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who said he would be among a number of lawmakers meeting Gross on arrival at Andrews.
Administration officials said that they did not expect a strongly negative public reaction to the moves, citing changes in the political sentiments of a new generation of Cuban Americans. Virtually all Latin American governments, including close U.S. allies, have long denounced the embargo and called for normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba.
But Cuban-American lawmakers were quick to denounce the move.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said Obama’s actions “will invite further belligerence toward Cuba’s opposition movement and the hardening of the government’s dictatorial hold on its people.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called the announcement “just the latest in a long line of failed attempts by President obama to appease rogue regimes at all cost.”
The deal reached is a major diplomatic victory for Castro, 83, who has said he will step down in 2018.
Since taking over in 2006 from his ailing older brother Fidel — now 88 and all but disappeared from public life — Raul Castro has repeated an offer to engage in direct conversations with President Obama “as equals,” saying any issue would on the table.
U.S. officials insisted that Gross’s release was on “humanitarian” grounds, and separate from what they characterized as a prisoner exchange of intelligence assets.
But, at its core, the swap is the same deal Cuba has been offering for several years: to trade Gross for a group of imprisoned Cuban intelligence agents that Havana champions as “anti-terrorism” heroes. The spies were sent by Cuba in the 1990s to infiltrate anti-Castro exile groups in Miami.
Havana’s ceaseless crusade to “Free the 5” — which included paid advertisements in American newspapers and giant billboards in U.S. cities — was always more than a propaganda campaign. For the Castros, it was personal. Two of the five prisoners had already served much of their terms in prison and been released to Havana.
The Justice Department said that Obama had commuted the remaining sentences of the three, and that they had been delivered to Cuba by the U.S. Marshals Service.
After a series of hotel bombings in 1997 by anti-Castro militants targeting the island’s burgeoning tourism industry, Fidel Castro authorized Cuban officials to release information on the groups to U.S. investigators.
But the information the militants provided helped American law enforcement detect the presence of the spies, ultimately leading to their arrests in 1998 and subsequent U.S. prison convictions.
Fidel Castro was said to be personally anguished by the fate of the spies, and burdened with guilt for having inadvertently contributed to their arrests.
After the last major upheaval in U.S.-Cuba relations — the all-out campaign to bring home child castaway Elian Gonzalez in 2000 — Fidel Castro and the Cuban government started a similar blitz on behalf of the spies. But they got little traction.
Taking Alan Gross into custody in 2009 changed the equation. His arrest, for distributing computer equipment as part of a clandestine U.S. effort, put new pressure on the covert U.S. democracy-building programs that were an annoyance to the government.
More importantly, he would become Cuba’s bargaining chip.
Havana never charged Gross with espionage, but instead convicted him for “crimes against the state” — essentially for trying to subvert the communist government and working for USAID programs that are illegal on the island.
Gross was sentenced to 15 years, and jailed at a military hospital, where his mental and physical health were said to be in steady decline. In recent months, he had refused medical care and diplomatic visits, while threatening to take his own life.
His death is Cuban custody would have likely crushed any possibility of a diplomatic thaw between the two countries.