Obama moves to restore relations with Cuba

cuba

President Barack Obama

After more than half a century of isolation, President Obama is dramatically shifting U.S. policy toward Cuba and move to end the Cold War-era conflict between the two countries.

America and Cuba will immediately start discussions to normalize diplomatic relations, while the U.S. is easing restrictions on travel and trade.

“Neither the American nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born,” Obama said Wednesday afternoon. “These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach.”

The change came after the Cuban government released Alan Gross, an American contractor who had been held in captivity for five years. Gross arrived back on American soil shortly before Obama spoke.

While the full U.S. embargo cannot be lifted without Congress, the administrative action is expected to be sweeping. And Obama said he looked forward to “engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo.”

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Republicans in Congress quickly expressed opposition to the move.

“Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom – and not one second sooner,” said House Speaker John Boehner in a statement. “There is no ‘new course’ here, only another in a long line of mindless concessions to a dictatorship that brutalizes its people and schemes with our enemies.”

Under the agreement to normalize diplomatic relations, which have been severed since 1961, the U.S. will eventually establish an embassy in Havana; Secretary of State John Kerry will begin a review of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terror; the U.S. will issue regulations to significantly increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information into Cuba; and the U.S. will participate with Cuba at next summer’s Summit of the Americas in Panama.

Administration officials declined to put a timeline on how long the restoration of full relations and the opening of an embassy would take. But one characterized it as “a decision that has been made and that will be taken.”

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“I’m under no illusion about the continued barriers to freedom that remain for ordinary Cubans,” said Obama, who senior administration officials say spoke with Castro on the phone Tuesday to “review and finalize” the plan. “With a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves.”

High-level negotiations between Washington and Havana began last spring, facilitated by the Canadian government and the Vatican. President Obama credited Pope Francis with playing a key role in facilitating the deal, including making a personal plea to Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro, urging both leaders to forge closer ties between their countries.

In addition to the release of Gross, administration officials also said the two countries had also conducted a swap of intelligence agents. This morning, the U.S. released three Cubans who had been held here for over 15 years. In exchange, Cuba released a U.S. intelligence asset who has been imprisoned for 20 years. As part of negotiations, the Cuban government also chose to release 53 political prisoners.

The U.S. asset has been responsible for some of the most important intelligence and counterintelligence prosecutions that the U.S. has pursued in recent decades, administration officials said. They said he had provided intelligence that led to the convictions of Ana Belen Montes and Walter Kendall Myers, both former U.S. government officers convicted of spying for Cuba.

Officials stressed that Gross was not included in the asset swap, since, they said, he is not an intelligence agent. Rather, the Cuban government agreed to release him on humanitarian grounds.

Gross, a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, was working to provide internet connectivity to Cuba’s small Jewish population when he was imprisoned on espionage charges in 2009. His imprisonment was a key sticking point in relations with Cuba, which Obama came in to office hoping to ease tensions.

Gross’s wife flew to Havana to meet him, and he returned on a charter flight accompanied by three American lawmakers – Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep.Chris Van Hollen, and Republican Sen. Jeff Flake – who have worked to improve U.S.-Cuban relations and bring Gross home.

“Today, it brings me great joy to join with Judy Gross and Senators Leahy and Flake to bring my friend Alan Gross home from Cuba after his five years in prison,” Van Hollen said in a statement.

According to Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, the plane left Cuban airspace at 8:45 a.m. Wednesday, carrying popcorn and a corned beef sandwich on rye with mustard – American treats Gross had missed.

But the negative reaction was swift from Capitol Hill, where senior lawmakers on both sides of aisle have spent their careers working to preserve crippling sanctions against the Communist Cuban government.

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, the outgoing Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, took the rare step of harshly criticizing a president of his own party. “President Obama’s actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government,” said Menendez, whose family fled Cuba in 1950s following Fidel Castro’s communist takeover.

Menendez said he believed the move could endanger Americans in the future as well. “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. I fear that today’s actions will put at risk the thousands of Americans,” he said.

The president is using the fullest extent of his executive powers to forge closer diplomatic, economic, and commercial ties between the two countries, without congressional authority. “We are certain the president has the authority to announce the steps he did today,” a senior administration official said. “We’re confident in our ability to take these steps.”

As such, Obama is repeating the strategy he used last month on immigration, when he sidelined a gridlocked Congress by issuing an executive order to prevent the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants. Some Republican-led states have challenged that move in court, arguing that the president exceeded his legal authority.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who is also of Cuban descent and is considering a presidential run in 2016, said he would “make every effort” to block the Cuba agreement through his role in Congress. And in an interview on Fox News, he called the move “absurd” and “dangerous,” saying restoring relations with Cuba “puts a price on Americans abroad.”

The White House counters that the embargo has failed to advance human rights in the country or to remove the Castros from power.

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