The U.S. also plans to open an embassy in Havana — a move that followed the release of an American contractor held in prison for five years. During the announcement, President Obama said that 50 years of isolation has not worked. “It’s time for a new approach,” he added.
In a deal negotiated during 18 months of secret talks hosted largely by Canada and encouraged by Pope Francis, who hosted a final meeting at the Vatican, Mr. Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba agreed in a telephone call to put aside decades of hostility to find a new relationship between the United States and the island nation just 90 miles off the American coast.
“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Mr. Obama said in a nationally televised statement from the White House. The deal will “begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas” and move beyond a “rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”
Alan P. Gross (pictured below), the contractor arrested in 2009, was sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison. On Wednesday, he was released.
The deal allowed Obama to “take a political risk with the last national election of his presidency behind him,” according to the New York Times:
Mr. Gross traveled on an American government plane back to the United States late Wednesday morning, and the United States sent back three Cuban spies who had been in an American prison since 2001. American officials said the Cuban spies were swapped for a United States intelligence agent who had been in a Cuban prison for nearly 20 years, and said Mr. Gross was not technically part of the swap, but was released separately on “humanitarian grounds.”
The “normalization” will also include the following:
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) December 17, 2014
In addition, the United States will ease restrictions on remittances, travel and banking relations, and Cuba will release 53 Cuban prisoners identified as political prisoners by the United States government.
The United States will begin working with Cuba on issues like counternarcotics, environmental protection and human trafficking.
The United States will also ease travel restrictions across all 12 categories currently envisioned under limited circumstances in American law, including family visits, official visits, journalistic, professional, educational and religious activities, and public performances, officials said. Ordinary tourism, however, will remain prohibited.
Mr. Obama will also allow greater banking ties, making it possible to use debit cards in Cuba, and raise the level of remittances allowed to be sent to Cuban nationals to $2,000 every three months from the current limit of $500. Intermediaries forwarding remittances will no longer require a specific license from the government.
American travelers will also be allowed to import up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba, including up to $100 in tobacco and alcohol products.
The decades long embargo on Cuba, however, will remain.
Addressing critics of his new approach, he said he shares their commitment to freedom. “The question is how we uphold that commitment,” he said. “I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.”
Mr. Castro spoke simultaneously on Cuban television, taking to the airwaves with no introduction and announcing that he had spoken by telephone with Mr. Obama.
“We have been able to make headway in the solution of some topics of mutual interest for both nations,” he announced, emphasizing the release of the three Cubans. “President Obama’s decision deserves the respect and acknowledgment of our people.”
Gross, who landed at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington shortly before noon on Wednesday, also supported Obama’s move.
At a news conference in Washington, Mr. Gross said he supported Mr. Obama’s move toward normalizing relations with Cuba, adding that his own ordeal and the injustice with which Cuban people have been treated were “a consequence of two governments’ mutually belligerent policies.”
“Five and a half decades of history show us that such belligerence inhibits better judgment,” Mr. Gross said. “Two wrongs never make a right. This is a game-changer, which I fully support.”
There were, however, dissenters.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and a son of Cuban immigrants who may run for president in 2016, denounced the new policy as “another concession to a tyranny” and a sign that Mr. Obama’s administration is “willfully ignorant of the way the world truly works.”
“This whole new policy is based on an illusion, on a lie, the lie and the illusion that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people,” Mr. Rubio said. “All this is going to do is give the Castro regime, which controls every aspect of Cuban life, the opportunity to manipulate these changes to stay in power.”
For more information on the new relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, click here.
SOURCE: NYT | PHOTO CREDIT: Getty | VIDEO SOURCE: News Inc.