After 18 months of secret talks, Obama and Cuban President Raul
Castro agreed in a phone call on Tuesday on a breakthrough prisoner
exchange, the opening of embassies in each other's countries, and an
easing of some restrictions on commerce.
The two leaders made the announcement in simultaneous televised
speeches. The Vatican and Canada facilitated the deal.
Obama's call for an end to the economic embargo drew resistance from
Republicans who will control both houses of Congress from January
and who oppose normal relations with the Communist-run island.
Obama said he was ending what he called a rigid and outdated policy
of isolating Cuba that had failed to achieve change on the island.
His administration's policy shift includes an opening to more
commerce in some areas, allowing use of U.S. credit and debit cards,
increasing the amount of money that can be sent to Cubans and
allowing export of telecommunications devices and services.
Travel restrictions that make it hard for most Americans to visit
will be eased, but the door will not yet be open for broad U.S.
tourism on the Caribbean island.
Obama's announcement also will not end the U.S. trade embargo that
has been in force for more than 50 years. That is codified in
legislation and needs congressional approval. Obama said he would
seek that approval but likely faces a struggle.
But sanctions experts said Obama had leeway to use executive his
powers to ease the embargo even in the face of congressional
"There is a lot of breadth to authorize things more broadly than
they’ve been authorized, provided that the broad (legislative)
contours are adhered to," said Peter Kucik, a former Treasury
Department official who worked on Cuban sanctions.
Obama said the opening was made possible by Havana's release of
American Alan Gross, 65, who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five
years. Gross' case had been a major obstacle to improving relations.
Cuba also released an intelligence agent who spied for the United
States and was held for nearly 20 years, and the United States in
return freed three Cuban intelligence agents held in the United
Cuba and the United States have been ideological foes since soon
after the 1959 revolution that brought President Raul Castro's older
brother, Fidel Castro, to power. Washington broke diplomatic
relations with Havana in 1961 as Cuba steered a leftist course that
turned it into a close ally of the former Soviet Union on the
island, which lies just 90 miles (140 km) south of Florida.
The hostilities were punctuated by crises over spies, refugees and
the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 that brought the world to
the brink of nuclear war. After the demise of the Soviet Union and
the end of the Cold War, Washington was increasingly alone in its
efforts to squeeze Cuba. Raul Castro, who took over from Fidel
Castro when his brother retired in 2008, has maintained a one-party
CRITICS CHALLENGE OBAMA
Obama said Cuba still needed to enact economic reforms and uphold
human rights among other changes but that it was time for a new
Americans are largely open to establishing diplomatic relations with
Cuba, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll of more than 31,000 adults
conducted between July and October. About one-fifth of those
surveyed said they opposed such a move, while 43 percent said the
United States should restore relations with Cuba and around 37
percent said they were unsure.
Critics said Cuba should not be rewarded, having yet to change, and
the path to completely normal ties is strewn with obstacles, in
particular lifting the embargo that the White House said Obama would
like to see dismantled by the time he leaves office in 2017.
Although a growing number of U.S. lawmakers favor more normal ties,
those lawmakers are still mostly Democrats, and after big midterm
election gains in November, Republicans will control both houses of
Congress in the new year.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican, said he was
committed to doing all he could to "unravel" the plan. Senators John
McCain and Lindsey Graham, both set to hold senior foreign policy
positions, said the policy shift reflected "America and the values
it stands for in retreat and decline."
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Former Secretary of State and potential 2016 Democratic presidential
contender Hillary Clinton backed Obama's move, saying: "Our
decades-long policy of isolation has only strengthened the Castro
regime's grip on power."
Whatever the criticism at home, Obama's move was made with the
political liberty of a president who, midway through his second
term, no longer has to face the electorate.
News of the changes rippled fast through the 1.5 million-strong
Cuban-American community in the United States. It was hailed by some
who are eager to see closer ties with the island and condemned by
Older Cubans who left the island soon after the revolution have
remained opposed to ties with either Castro brother in power.
Younger Cubans, who left more recently or were born in the United
States, have shown more interest in warmer relations.
"It's amazing," said Hugo Cancio, who arrived in Miami in the 1980
Mariel boatlift and runs a magazine with offices in Miami and
Havana. "This is a new beginning, a dream come true for the 11.2
million Cubans in Cuba, and I think it will provoke a change of
mentality here too in this community."
In Havana, stunned Cubans celebrated the news, although some were
skeptical the long years of animosity really would end. In one
student demonstration on a busy Havana street corner, about 100
people shut off traffic while motorists honked their horns.
Neighbors peered out from their balconies, joining in the cheers.
"I have waited for this day since I can remember," said taxi driver
Jorge Reymond, wiping away tears.
Obama's move was also praised by Latin American leaders, who have
urged Washington for years to drop its economic embargo against
Obama said the Gross case had stalled his ambitions to try to reset
relations with Havana, calling it a "major obstacle." Pope Francis,
the first Latin American pontiff, played an active role in pressing
for his release from Cuba, where a sizable part of the population is
Cuba arrested Gross on Dec. 3, 2009, and sentenced him 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 U.S. Agency for International
Gross' lawyer and family have described him as mentally vanquished,
gaunt, hobbling and missing five teeth. Speaking to reporters after
arriving in the United States, Gross thanked Obama for all he had
done to secure his release and said he did not blame the Cuban
people for his ordeal.
The three Cuban intelligence agents, jailed since 1998, are Gerardo
Hernandez, 49, Antonio Guerrero, 56, and Ramon Labañino, 51. Two
others had been released before on completing their sentences - Rene
Gonzalez, 58, and Fernando Gonzalez, 51. The three arrived in Cuba
on Wednesday, Castro said.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Patricia Zengerle, Roberta
Rampton, Richard Cowan, Anna Yukhananov and Alistair Bell in
Washington, and Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Writing by Frances
Kerry; Editing by Howard Goller, Peter Cooney and Lisa Shumaker)
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