Months of talks in Canada and at the Vatican, involving one of
Obama's closest aides, culminated on Tuesday when Obama and Cuban
President Raul Castro spoke by phone for nearly an hour and gave
final assent to steps that could end a half-century of enmity and
reshape Western Hemisphere relations.
Obama believed that "if there is any U.S. foreign policy that has
passed its expiration date, it is the U.S.-Cuba policy," said a
senior Obama administration official, briefing reporters on
condition of anonymity.
The Vatican played a key role in the rapprochement, including
facilitating talks on the release of Alan Gross, a former
subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development who
returned from Cuba on Wednesday after five years' imprisonment, U.S.
In early summer 2014, Pope Francis - who is from Argentina - sent
separate personal letters to Obama and Castro, urging them to
exchange captives and improve relations.
When the pope received the U.S. president in Vatican City in late
March, the secret Cuba talks were a central topic of discussion.
Cuba "got as much attention as anything else," the official said.
The first face-to-face talks that eventually led to this week's deal
took place in June 2013 in Canada, which has long maintained
relations with Cuba.
Leading the U.S. delegation were Ben Rhodes, a close Obama aide who
is a deputy national security adviser, and Ricardo Zuniga, the top
Latin American specialist on the White House's National Security
Council. The names of the Cuban participants in the talks could not
immediately be learned.
U.S. and Cuban prisoners were a major point of debate, the officials
For the Obama administration, Gross' continued imprisonment was both
a practical and political barrier to improved ties.
Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by phone four times this summer
with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez about Gross, a second
senior U.S. official said.
Kerry told the Cubans that if anything happened to Gross, there
would never be better relations between Washington and Havana, this
The Vatican got involved as early as March 2012, when a group of
U.S. lawmakers went to the papal ambassador's office in Washington's
posh Embassy Row section and pleaded for help.
Since then, through a Vatican transition from Pope Benedict XVI to
Pope Francis, "it has always stayed on the Vaticanís radar," said
Senator Barbara Mikulski, from Gross' home state of Maryland. "They
talk to higher powers. I donít know if itís radar or angels,
Cherubim, Seraphim - they go for it."
In the talks, Washington also insisted on the release of a spy for
the United States who had been languishing in a Cuban prison for
nearly two decades.
The unidentified individual "was instrumental in the identification
and disruption of several Cuban intelligence operatives in the
United States," the office of Director of National Intelligence
James Clapper said in a statement.
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Among the Cuban operatives unmasked by the agent were a senior U.S.
Defense Intelligence Agency analyst and members of a Florida-based
spy ring known as the "Wasp Network."
Cuba insisted on the release
of three members of the network, Cuban intelligence agents who had
served 16 years in U.S. jails.
In the talks, there were also clear signs of unresolved disputes.
The Cubans reiterated calls for an end to U.S. pro-democracy
programs in Cuba, which Havana has long viewed as a thinly disguised
attempt to overthrow its communist system. Washington did not accede
to those demands, the first senior official said.
The transfer of prisoners was finalized at a key meeting at the
Vatican, the official said. The date of that session is unclear.
5 A.M. FLIGHT TO HAVANA
At 3 a.m. EST (0800 GMT) on Wednesday, Grossí congressman, Maryland
Democrat Chris Van Hollen, awoke to catch a 5 a.m. flight to Havana.
His group, which included Gross' wife Judy, Republican Senator Jeff
Flake and Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, arrived at 8 a.m. at an
airport outside the Cuban capital.
"We went into a room. We were escorted there by a couple of Cuban
officials, and in the room was Alan Gross, along with two American
officials who were part of the Interests Section," Van Hollen said.
Gross, he said, "looked very frail, but his spirits were very high."
Gross's lawyer had told him in a phone call on Tuesday that he was
to be released. After a pause, Gross replied, "I'll believe it when
I see it," according to a spokeswoman, Jill Zuckman.
On the plane home, Zuckman said, Gross found some favorite foods:
popcorn, a corned beef sandwich with mustard on rye bread, and
potato pancakes known as latkes. For Gross, who is Jewish, it was a
special day -- the first day of Hannukah.
At 8:45 a.m., the pilot announced the plane had left Cuban airspace.
Said Zuckman: "Alan stood up on the plane and took a deep breath at
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Rick Cowan, David
Lawder, Mark Hosenball, Roberta Rampton and Anna Yukhananov; Editing
by David Storey and Tom Brown)
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