U.S. President Barack Obama announced a major shift in U.S. relations with Cuba on Wednesday, after the country’s communist leaders released Alan Gross, an American who had been imprisoned there for five years.
Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, in simultaneous speeches from Washington and Havana, said they had exchanged American and Cuban prisoners each had held for years. They will also open a path to increased economic and travel ties between the two countries, ending more than a half-century of diplomatic isolation borne in the Cold War.
"Isolation has not worked. It's time for a new approach," Obama said, in explaining the move toward normalizing relations. "I believe this contact will do more to empower the Cuban people."
In lauding the move, Castro said, "We have decided to re-establish diplomatic relations" with the U.S.
A screenshot from Cuban television shows President Raul Castro addressing the country, in Havana, Dec. 17, 2014.
He said, "This decision by President Barack Obama deserves respect and recognition by our people," but he also called for a complete end to the U.S. economic blockade.
The two leaders talked by phone for more than 45 minutes on Tuesday, the first substantive presidential contact between the U.S. and Cuba since 1961.
Later Wednesday, Gross made a short statement in Washington. He said he had learned of his impending release on Tuesday. He said he was happy to be home and that he was thankful for all those who worked for his release.
Obama said Gross and a man described as "one of the most important (U.S.) intelligence agents" were exchanged for three Cuban intelligence operatives who had spent more than a decade in U.S. prisons.
Alan Gross (R) speaks with his wife Judy shortly before leaving Havana, Dec. 17, 2014, in this photo tweeted by U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ).
Talks for Gross' release lasted about a year, with the Vatican playing a significant role, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said Wednesday.
Both Obama and Castro thanked Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, in starting a dialogue between the two countries.
The Vatican replied on Wednesday that, in recent months, Francis had written letters to both leaders, inviting them to “resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations” between the two countries.
Watch related video by VOA White House Correspondent Luis Ramirez:
Changes in coming weeks, months
The two countries are expected in the coming weeks to negotiate an agreement to lead both countries to opening embassies in each other's capitals.
Obama said business and travel ties will be launched, but that he will have to negotiate with the U.S. Congress over ending the country's economic blockade against Cuba.
Also, the U.S. Treasury said in the coming weeks that financial sanctions on Cuba will be amended. And the U.S. will unfreeze U.S. bank accounts of Cubans who no longer live in Cuba, the White House said.
Obama has also asked Secretary of State John Kerry to review Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. "This review will be guided by the facts and the law," he said. "A nation that meets our conditions and renounces the use of terrorism should not face this sanction.''
Kerry said that he would travel to Cuba at some point in the future. "I look forward to being the first Secretary of State in 60 years to visit Cuba," Kerry said in a statement.
Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson will travel to Cuba in January to discuss the renewal of diplomatic relations, he added.
"As we did with Vietnam, changing our relationship with Cuba will require an
investment of time, energy and resources," Kerry said.
In the coming months the U.S. also will work with Cuba on such issues as migration, counternarcotics, human trafficking and the environment.
Critical of plans
In responding to Obama, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner said, “Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom - and not one second sooner. … If anything, this emboldens all state sponsors of terrorism. …”
However, Boehner said he felt “great joy and relief for Alan Gross and his family.”
U.S. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Florida Republican who is Cuban-American, said, “The White House has conceded everything, but gained little."
It is Cuba’s human rights record that has kept the administration from moving to strengthen relations and possibly ease or lift the embargo.
U.S. Senator Bob Corker, who will lead the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the new Congress, said Wednesday he wanted to know more about what Cuba would do in return for any shift in U.S. policy and will “closely examine” the issue.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas Donohue hailed the president’s announcement Wednesday, saying, “We deeply believe that an open dialogue and commercial exchange between the U.S. and Cuban private sectors will bring shared benefits, and the steps announced today will go a long way in allowing opportunities for free enterprise to flourish.”
An end to the five-decade U.S. trade embargo against Cuba would provide a major boost to the communist island's economy, but American cruise lines were also expected to benefit from the thaw.
Wednesday's news that Washington and Havana are to resume diplomatic and trade ties sent shares climbing for three Florida-based cruise line operators. American tourists, the world's most keen cruise customers, may now be able to land in Cuba and use their U.S. credit cards.
Steps by Obama toward normalizing relations with Cuba could stir opposition from some sectors of the large community of Cuban exiles, who have traditionally been politically well connected and well financed.
Immediately following Obama's speech, Cuban Americans and other Latin Americans in Miami, Florida, had mixed feelings toward the news.
However, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he “heartily welcomes” moves by Cuba and American leaders to begin to mend relations between the two nations.
Russia also welcomed the thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, according to Interfax.
The United States imposed a trade embargo against Cuba in 1960, and the two countries have not had official diplomatic relations since 1961. The U.S. enacted the embargo shortly after Communists took over the island, seized U.S. property, and began a series of human rights violations.
Back in US
The plane carrying Gross landed at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland Wednesday shortly after 11 a.m. EST (1600 GMT).
Gross, 65, had been arrested by Cuba on December 3, 2009. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) subcontractor was later convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison for importing banned technology and trying to establish clandestine Internet service for Cuban Jews.
Gross' wife, Judy, said in a recent interview that her husband was becomingly increasingly despondent. Judy Gross said earlier this month that since Gross' imprisonment, he had lost more than 100 pounds, could barely walk due to chronic pain, and had lost five teeth and much of the sight in his right eye.
Meanwhile, a Department of Justice official said Wednesday that three former Cuban intelligence agents have been transferred to Cuba after Obama commuted their sentences. Justice spokesman Brian Fallon said Luis Medina, Gerardo Hernandez and Antonio Guerrero had been released from custody and flown to Cuba.
The three were part of the so-called Cuban Five, who were convicted for spying on anti-Castro exile groups in Florida and monitoring U.S. military installations, and they have spent more than 15 years in U.S. prisons.
Some material for this report came from VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez, Reuters, AP and AFP.