The U.S. will restore diplomatic relations with Cuba and expand travel and trade in the most sweeping changes to U.S.-Cuba policy in 50 years after President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro agreed to the outlines of a deal that freed American contractor Alan Gross and sent three Cubans convicted of spying back to Cuba.
"We will end an outdated approach that has failed to advance our interests,” Obama said in remarks from the White House. “These 50 years have shown isolation does not work, it’s time for a new approach.”
The deal – which was reached with the involvement of Pope Francis -- also involved the release of a U.S. intelligence “asset” who had been imprisoned for nearly 20 years, Obama said.
As a result, the U.S. will look at setting up an embassy in Havana – it severed contact in 1961 -- and possibly removing Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism. And it will loosen restrictions on travel and trade with the country, making it easier for more Americans to travel there, and allowing them to bring back as much as $400, including $100 in alcohol and tobacco.
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The moves are a repudiation of the hands-off stance and economic stranglehold the U.S. has employed against Cuba since Fidel Castro came to power in the 1960 – a policy the White House said “had failed to advance our interests.’
The moves stop short of lifting the economic embargo against Cuba – which only Congress can do – but Obama said he “looked forward” to talking with Congress about the possibility.
The move was immediately condemned by some of the staunchest anti Castro lawmakers from South Florida as a paean to the Cuban regime, even as Obama insisted he would continue to press Cuba on democracy and human rights.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called the decision to relax U.S. restrictions, “the latest in a long line of failed attempts by President Obama to appease rogue regimes at all cost.”
Rubio said he was pleased that Gross was released, but said the Castro family still controls Cuban economy and “all levers of power” and that loosening restrictions would only benefit the regime.
Rubio said he plans to use his role as incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee “to make every effort to block this dangerous and desperate attempt by the president to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people’s expense.”
Obama said spoke with Raul Castro on Tuesday and “made clear my strong belief” that the Cuban government continues to prevent its people independence. But he said it is time to scrap a U.S. policy that isn’t working.
“I don’t expect a transformation of Cuban society overnight, but I’m convinced with engagement we can more effectively stand up for our values,” he said.
Obama had taken office hoping to improve relations with Cuba, but Gross’s imprisonment was a major stumbling block.
But officials said in talks that began in the spring of 2013 -- and were held in Canada and at the Vatican – the two governments agreed to a swap that involved today’s return of three Cubans who were convicted in 2001 in Miami on charges including conspiracy and failure to register as foreign agents.
In exchange, Cuba released an unidentified intelligence asset who Obama said was “responsible for some of most important intelligence and counter intelligence prosecutions the U.S. has been able to pursue,” including the conviction of the three Cuban spies, as well as Ana Belen Montes, a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst and Walter Kendall Myers, a former State Department employee, who, along with his wife, Gwendolyn, was convicted of spying for Cuba in 2010.
White House officials insisted Gross, who was arrested in 2009, was not part of the prisoner swap, but was released on humanitarian grounds. The Cuban government has also agreed to release 53 prisoners, some of whom the White House considers political prisoners,
White House officials said normalizing relations could help both countries coordinate on issues, including response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and counter terrorism.
The White House said the new steps will include: asking Secretary of State John Kerry to review Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Increasing the travel to Cuba, allowing travelers to use credit and debit cards when they travel to Cuba and increasing the amount of money people in the U.S. can send to Cubans.
The talks began last spring and were substantially aided by a letter Pope Francis wrote to Obama and Castro, calling on them to resolve Gross’s detention and that of the three Cubans, Obama said. The pope also encouraged both countries “to pursue closer a relationship,” the officials said.
Obama spoke Tuesday with Raul Castro to review the deal and “made clear his intent to pursue this policy changes but also our advocacy for human rights in Cuba,” the official said.
Three members of Congress traveled on the plane to Cuba to secure Gross, a measure the White House called “indicative of bipartisan support” for the changes. They included Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland.
Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, has been held in Cuba since his arrest on Dec. 3, 2009, for smuggling satellite communications equipment to Cuba as part of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s pro-democracy programs. It was his fifth trip to Cuba to work with Jewish communities on setting up Internet access.
Gross landed at Andrews Air Force Base Wednesday morning where he was greeted by Secretary of State John Kerry, the State Department said. Kerry met with Gross, his wife, Judy, his lawyer Scott Gilbert, and other members of his family.
Kerry said the step toward normalizing relations “reflects our firm belief that the risk and the cost of trying to turn the tide is far lower than the risk and cost of remaining stuck in an ideological cement of our own making.”
While the normalization announcement came Wednesday, the Obama administration has been moving in the same direction for several years. Drug enforcement, science and environmental officials have met with their Cuban counterparts, in third countries such as Mexico. They've discussed ways to ensure that energy drilling off the Cuban coastline doesn't result in spills that are carried by ocean currents to U.S. shores. They've also discussed efforts to thwart Colombian cocaine from reaching U.S. and Mexican shoes.
Soon after taking office, Obama reversed a Bush administration action that limited how often Cubans in the United States could visit the island. And he lifted restrictions on how much cash Cubans in the United States could send to relatives and friends in Cuba. When combined with Cuba's opening to allow small-scale private enterprise, it has allowed the Cuban economy to increasingly be "dollarized" and led to wealth inequality on the socialist island that long prided itself on everyone being equal.