WASHINGTON — President Obama on Wednesday announced he is restoring diplomatic relations with the communist government of Cuba after more than half a century, part of a sweeping set of economic and diplomatic reforms that came after the release of an American contractor who had been held in a Cuban prison for five years and an unnamed individual who had spied for the United States.
The deal, which also includes the release of three convicted Cuban spies imprisoned in the United States, came after 18 months of back-channel discussions between the two governments that were hosted by Canada and encouraged by Pope Francis.
It was sealed with a 45-minute phone call on Tuesday between President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, the first time the nation’s two leaders held official discussions since the Cuban revolution in 1959. In an extraordinary moment, Obama and Castro each addressed their countries at the same time on Wednesday.
“We will end an outdated approach that has failed to advance our interests,” Obama, who was born in 1961, said in remarks from the White House. “Neither the American nor the Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”
He said it will open a “new chapter,” in which Americans can more easily begin traveling to Cuba, and information and ideas can more readily begin to be traded between the countries.
“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” Obama said. “It’s time for a new approach.”
In one of the most visible signs of the new collaboration, Cuba released Alan Gross, an aid worker imprisoned in Cuba in 2009 for providing Internet access to Cuba’s Jewish community and accused by the regime of being a spy. The White House said that Gross’ release was not tied to the release of three Cuban prisoners but was done on humanitarian grounds. Separately, the US said that an unnamed Cuban who had spied for the US, and who had been imprisoned in Cuba for 20 years, was traded for the three Cubans held in the United States following their 2001 conviction.
Obama said he had instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to immediately begin discussions with Cuba, and start reevaluating Cuba’s listing as a state sponsor of terrorism, which it was first designated in 1982. Kerry coincidentally arrived at Andrews Air Force Base on a flight from Rome at about the same time as Gross arrived from Havana. In a meeting that was unplanned, Kerry and Gross sat on leather couches in the airport lounge as they jointly watched Obama’s remarks on live television.
“Today’s step also 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,” Kerry said in a statement. “I look forward to being the first Secretary of State in 60 years to visit Cuba.”
The reforms will include opening an US embassy in Havana in the coming months -- as well as a Cuban Embassy in Washington -- significantly relaxing travel restrictions to the island nation for business, educational and humanitarian purposes; permitting US telecommunications to operate in Cuba; and quadrupling the amount of so-called remittances that Cuban Americans can send to family members. Currently, the two countries maintain “interest sections” that serve as unofficial diplomatic stations.
But the measures will stop short of lifting the full economic embargo that was put in place in 1961 or the ban on American tourism, two steps that would have to be overturned by Congress.
Although the broader changes to US policy were also widely hailed by longtime advocates for normalizing relations, they were met with fierce bipartisan criticism from some quarters that the moves would empower the communist regime in Cuba.
“The White House has conceded everything and gained little,” said Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican whose parents immigrated from Cuba. “This president has proven today that his foreign policy is more than naive. It is willfully ignorant of how the world works.”
The moves from the Obama administration were also condemned by Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey who is the outgoing chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. He was particularly critical of the decision to release three Cubans held by the United States while Cuba released Gross.
“President Obama’s actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government,” he said. “Trading Mr. Gross for three convicted criminals sets an extremely dangerous precedent. It invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips.”
But support for move came from many quarters. Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, accompanied Gross on his return from Cuba. The US Chamber of Commerce, often an Obama critic, applauded the move as going “a long way in allowing opportunities for free enterprise to flourish” on the island that has had a centrally controlled economy. Many US businesses want to trade with Cuba.
Gross was arrested in 2009 while he was in Cuba delivering satellite telephones that could be used to circumvent state-controlled channels. Cuban authorities, accusing him of being a spy, convicted him in 2011 and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. His health has been failing, as he lost weight and some of the vision in his right eye.
Several members of Congress, including Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat, traveled on an American government plane with Gross and his wife, Judy. Representative Jim McGovern, the Worcester Democrat who has traveled frequently to Cuba and met with Gross in prison had urged that he be released, met him at the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base, located just outside Washington in a Maryland suburb.
“Today is a historic, long-overdue day,” said McGovern. “At long last, the Cold War policies of the past five decades are almost over.”
Several hours after Gross arrived, he spoke to reporters at an emotional press conference that happened to occur on the first day of Hanukkah. Gross, who is Jewish, opened his remarks by saying “chag sameach,” Hebrew for happy holiday.
He thanked his family, Obama, his legal team, and members of Congress who tirelessly advocated for his release.
“It was crucial to my survival to know I was not forgotten,” he said. He expressed support for the larger policy changes Obama announced in the wake of his release, and the hope it will improve the plight of the oppressed Cuban people.
“In no way are they responsible for the ordeal to which my family and I have been subjected,” he said. “It pains me to see them so unjustly as one consequence of two government’s mutually belligerent policies. Two wrongs never make a right. I truly hope we can now get beyond these belligerent policies.”
The United States on Wednesday also secured the release of an unnamed Cuban man who had aided the United States by providing information “instrumental in the identification and disruption of several Cuban intelligence operatives in the United States and ultimately led to a series of successful federal espionage prosecutions,” according to Brian P. Hale, spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The man spent nearly 20 years in a Cuban prison after providing information that led to the identification and conviction of several Cuban spies, according to a statement from the Director of National Intelligence.
In return for his release, the United States sent back to Cuba three spies who had been in a US prison since 2001.
“In light of his sacrifice on behalf of the United States, securing his release from prison after 20 years – in a swap for three of the Cuban spies he helped put behind bars – is fitting closure to this Cold World chapter of U.S.-Cuban relations,” Hale said.
The renewed talks between the United States and Cuba began some 18 months ago, with secret talks in Canada, and with Pope Francis playing a crucial role from the Vatican. The pope sent private letters to both President Obama and Raul Castro this past summer.
US ambassador to the Holy See, Ken Hackett, said in a statement from Rome that “a senior Vatican official also played an important part in this historic moment by meeting with U.S. and Cuban delegations in October to help bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion.”
Obama thanked the pope several times in his remarks, hailing “his moral example, showing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.”
At the same time as Obama was addressing Americans about the new agreement, Castro spoke to the Cuban people.
“We have been able to advance the solutions of some themes of interest to both nations,” Castro said. “This decision of President Obama deserves the respect and acknowledgment of our people.”