US President Barack Obama announced the United States is restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, saying his country’s 50-year policy of isolating its communist-ruled neighbor is rigid, outdated and ineffective in achieving change on the island.
After 18 months of secret talks facilitated by the Vatican and Canada, Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro agreed by phone on Tuesday on a prisoner exchange and the opening of embassies in each other’s countries, Reuters reported.
Speaking from the White House, Obama said: “Neither the American nor the Cuban people are well-served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born. It’s time for a new approach.”
Obama said the moves were made possible by Havana’s release of American Alan Gross, 65, who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years.
Cuba is also releasing an intelligence agent who spied for the United States and was held for nearly 20 years, and Washington in return freed three Cuban intelligence agents held in the US.
From Havana, Castro hailed the exchange of prisoners and praised Obama. He avoided triumphal statements in his televised address but said the release of the three Cubans was a cause of “enormous joy for their families and all of our people”.
Obama said Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, had played an active role in pressing for Gross’ release. A sizable part of Cuba’s population is Roman Catholic. The Vatican worked closely with both sides and hosted in-person meetings of US officials, senior Obama administration officials told the news agency.
The policy shift will mean an opening to some commerce and transportation without ending a longstanding trade embargo, the report said. That is codified in legislation and needs congressional approval that Obama said he will seek.
Such a bid may face hurdles in the incoming Republican-dominated Congress.
While travel restrictions that make it hard for most Americans to visit Cuba will be relaxed, the door will not yet be open for broad US tourism on the Caribbean island.
Washington broke diplomatic relations with Havana in 1961, or two years after forces led by Fidel Castro, Raul’s older brother, rose to power.
Critics opposed the plan to normalize ties with Cuba. “I don’t think we should be negotiating with a repressive regime to make changes in our relationship,” Former Florida governor — and potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate — Jeb Bush told USA Today.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban American and a Republican, pledged to block the plan. He will be the chairman of the foreign relations committee in the incoming Senate.
Americans are largely open to establishing diplomatic relations with the Cuban government, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll of more than 31,000 adults conducted between July and October.
Around one-fifth said they opposed such a move, while 43 percent said the US should restore ties with Cuba and around 37 percent said they were unsure.
Gross, the American prisoner, was arrested by Cuban authorities on Dec. 3, 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for importing banned technology and trying to establish clandestine internet service for Cuban Jews. Gross had been working as a subcontractor for the US Agency for International Development, the report said.
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