Politics & Government

Obama opens relations with Cuba, easing half-century standoff

The United States will restore diplomatic relations with Cuba in the most sweeping changes to U.S.-Cuba policy since President Dwight Eisenhower severed ties with its communist rulers and the two countries faced each other in the most dangerous flashpoint of the Cold War.

President Barack Obama said Tuesday that he’s scrapping an “outdated approach” to opening the island to democracy after reaching a deal with Cuban leader Raúl Castro to release an American jailed in Cuba and three Cubans convicted of spying on the U.S.

“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” Obama said from the White House, announcing the changes as Alan Gross, imprisoned on the island for five years, arrived in the U.S. “It’s time for a new approach.”

The deal – reached after months of secret negotiations in Canada and at the Vatican – also involved the release from prison of a Cuban man Obama described as “one of the most important intelligence agents” that the U.S. ever had in Cuba.

As a result, the United States will set up an embassy in Havana and possibly remove Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism.

The thaw comes decades after the U.S. drew a bright line in response to the revolution on the island 90 miles from Florida, ordering an embargo in 1960 after the government nationalized all American-owned property, cutting off official contact with the Cuban government in January 1961, backing a failed invasion later that same year, and then going to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union over missiles in Cuba in 1962.

Now, in addition to opening an embassy, the U.S. 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 worth of alcohol and tobacco.

It will permit the export of certain goods, including building materials for private housing and goods for use by private-sector Cuban entrepreneurs, and allow U.S. credit and debit cards to be used by travelers to Cuba.

The moves are a nearly complete repudiation of the economic stranglehold the U.S. sought to impose soon after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. Obama said the effort to secure openness and democracy on the island by tightening the economic screws has “failed to advance our interests” and should be replaced.

“I do not expect the changes I am announcing today to bring about a transformation of Cuban society overnight,” Obama said. “But I am convinced that through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century.”

The moves stop short of lifting the decades-old economic embargo against Cuba – which only Congress can do. But Obama said he would look forward to an “honest and serious debate” about the possibility.

That could prove more difficult than a presidential move. The changes drew backing from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and agricultural interests that have long eyed Cuba as a lucrative market, but were met with sharp and immediate opposition from some of the staunchest anti-Castro lawmakers in Congress. They said the loosening of the restrictions will only enrich the Castro regime and embolden its efforts to crack down on its critics.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the Cuban-American incoming chair of a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee, pledged to use his post to block what he called a “dangerous and desperate attempt by the president to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people’s expense.”

Obama said he spoke Tuesday with Raúl Castro to review the deal and “made clear my strong belief that Cuban society is constrained by restrictions on its citizens.”

Obama promised on the campaign trail in 2008 to seek improved relations with Cuba and loosened some travel restrictions in 2011. But Gross’s arrest in December 2009 for smuggling satellite communications equipment to Cuba as part of a U.S. pro-democracy program was a major stumbling block.

Obama sought a review of U.S.-Cuba policy after his 2012 re-election, with talks among high-level U.S. and Cuban officials beginning in June 2013. The result was a swap that involved Wednesday’s return to Cuba 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 the unidentified intelligence asset who Obama said aided in the convictions of the three Cuban spies as well as the convictions of three other Americans who spied for Cuba.

White House officials said the ailing Gross was not an intelligence agent and was not part of the prisoner swap but was released on humanitarian grounds. He had lost weight, teeth and was “wasting away,” his wife, Judy said earlier this month.

Gross was flown to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington aboard one of the jets used for the president and other high-ranking government officials.

“It was crucial to my survival knowing that I was not forgotten,” he said.

Gross endorsed the changes Obama announced, saying he hoped the countries “can now get beyond those mutually belligerent policies.”

The Cuban government also agreed to release 53 political prisoners, increase Internet connectivity to Cubans and increase engagement – and potentially monitoring – with the United Nations and the International Red Cross.

White House officials said the loosening of restrictions was not in response to a Cuban request but are in the U.S. national interest and will aid Cuba’s dissidents.

Cuba wanted the U.S. to end its democracy programs – like the one Gross was engaged in – and return use of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, but the U.S. refused, said a administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity as a matter of administration policy.

“We’ll continue to have strong differences,” the official said.

Obama and Raúl Castro both now will attend the 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama.

White House officials said the easing of relations with Cuba could improve U.S. dealings with other Latin American countries, which have long opposed the U.S. embargo.

“That policy often became an irritant and a block in our being able to cooperate,” said one administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity as a matter of administration policy.

White House officials said normalizing relations could also help both countries coordinate on issues, including response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and counterterrorism.

The high-level talks – nine in all _ began in June 2013 but were given considerable “confidence and momentum” by Pope Francis, White House officials said. The pope, after talking about Cuba with Obama at a Vatican meeting last March, wrote letters to Obama and Castro, calling on them to resolve the issues of the prisoners “in order to initiate a new phase in relations between the two parties.” A senior administration official said the first Latin American pope was a key factor.

The U.S. and Cuban delegations met in October at the Vatican where they reviewed the agreement, officials said. Senior Vatican officials sat in on the meetings and “served as something of a guarantor that we would get this done,” said the senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity as a matter of administration policy.

He said the talks were kept to a small number of officials to avoid “any wrench to be thrown in the gears.”

The Vatican on Wednesday expressed Francis’ “warm congratulations” for what it called a “historic decision” and said the Holy See would continue to support U.S. and Cuban moves that “promote the well being of their respective citizens.”

Obama has no trip to Cuba planned but is open to the idea.

“I don’t have any current plans, but let’s see how things evolve,” Obama told ABC’s David Muir.

No American president has visited Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

Anita Kumar and Maria Recio contributed to this report.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer