Obama Announces U.S. and Cuba Will Resume Relations

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This article by Peter Baker appeared in The New York Times. Here’s an excerpt. For the complete report follow the link below.

The United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century after the release of an American contractor held in prison for five years, President Obama announced on Wednesday.

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“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Mr.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.”

The surprise announcement represented a dramatic turning point in more than five decades of hostility born in the depths of the Cold War and yet frozen in time long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Once a geopolitical flash point, the Cuba-America relationship has been a thorn in the side of multiple presidents and even now generated fierce criticism from those who equated a diplomatic thaw to appeasement of the hemisphere’s leading dictatorship.

Mr. Obama has long expressed hope of transforming relations with the island nation, an aspiration that remained untenable as long as Cuba held Alan P. Gross, the American government contractor arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison. In agreeing to free him, Cuba cleared the way for Mr. Obama to take a political risk with the last national election of his presidency behind him.

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.”

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. Although the decades-old American embargo on Cuba will remain in place for now, the president called for an “honest and serious debate about lifting” it, which would require an act of Congress.

“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s time for a new approach.”

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.”

Only afterward did he mention the reopening of diplomatic relations. “This in no way means that the heart of the matter has been resolved,” he said. “The economic, commercial and financial blockade, which causes enormous human and economic damages to our country, must cease.” But, he added, “the progress made in our exchanges proves that it is possible to find solutions to many problems.”

Mr. Castro acknowledged that Mr. Obama was easing the blockade through his executive authority and called on the United States government to go further to “remove the obstacles that impede or restrict the links between our peoples, the families and the citizens of both our countries.”

Mr. Gross, accompanied by his wife, Judy, and three members of Congress, landed at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington shortly before noon. His sister, Bonnie Rubinstein, was “beyond ecstatic” at the news, according to her husband, Harold. “We are extremely grateful that he’s on his way home,” Mr. Rubinstein said by telephone from Dallas. “It’s been a long ordeal.”

Secretary of State John Kerry landed at Andrews shortly afterward and met with Mr. Gross, his wife, other members of his family and his lawyer, Scott Gilbert. While the meeting was unplanned, a State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said it gave Mr. Kerry a chance to “express his overwhelming happiness that Alan Gross is now free and reunited with his family on American soil.”

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.”

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.”

Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was also sharply critical. “Let’s be clear, this was not a ‘humanitarian’ act by the Castro regime. It was a swap of convicted spies for an innocent American,” Mr. Menendez said in a written statement. “President Obama’s actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government.”

Mr. Obama spoke with Mr. Castro by telephone on Tuesday to finalize the agreement in a call that lasted more than 45 minutes, the first direct contact between the leaders of the two countries in more than 50 years, American officials said.

Diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba were severed in January 1961 after the rise of Fidel Castro and his Communist government. Mr. Obama has instructed Mr. Kerry to immediately initiate discussions with Cuba about re-establishing diplomatic relations and to begin the process of removing Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism, which it has been on since 1982, the White House said.

Officials said they would re-establish an embassy in Havana and carry out high-level exchanges and visits between the two governments within months. Mr. Obama will send an assistant secretary of state to Havana next month for talks on Cuban-American migration and will attend a Summit of the Americas meeting along with Mr. Castro. 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 Vatican hailed the agreement. “The Holy Father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history,” it said in a statement.

Mr. Gross’s health has been failing. He reportedly lost more than 100 pounds in prison and is losing vision in his right eye. He went on a nine-day hunger strike in April. After turning 65 in May, he told relatives that he might try to kill himself if not released soon.

Three members of Congress were on the plane that picked up Mr. Gross in Cuba on Wednesday and accompanied him back to the United States, officials said: Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, and Representative Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland.

For the original report go to http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/18/world/americas/us-cuba-relations.html

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