President Obama announced Wednesday that the U.S. will move to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and open an embassy in Havana, a major breakthrough ending five decades of animosity between two countries just 90 miles apart.
"Today the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba," Obama said in a national address from the White House. Cuban leader Raul Castro was addressing Cubans separately.
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Acknowledging that five decades of a strict embargo failed to bring about a change in Cuban leadership, the Obama administration declared it was time to chart a new course that would allow the United States to resume a leadership role in Latin America and foster change through contacts instead of isolation.
Secret talks between U.S. and Cuban diplomats in Canada and at the Vatican led to the thaw in relations and the release of American contractor Alan Gross Wednesday, who had been held in Cuba for five years. The United States released three Cuban spies convicted 15 years ago in Miami as part of the deal. Cuba released 53 political prisoners and an American intelligence asset who had been imprisoned for two decades. Obama said the asset, whom he did name, had provided information that allowed the United States to shut down the Cuban spy ring. That man is now safely on U.S. soil, Obama said.
The terms of the deal were finalized in a 45-minute phone call Tuesday between Obama and Castro, marking the first direct contact between leaders of those two countries in decades.
Secretary of State John Kerry will revisit Cuba's longstanding designation as a state sponsor of terror. "Terrorism has changed in the last five decades," Obama noted in his speech. Just four countries are on that list -- Cuba, Syria, Sudan and Iran. In January, a diplomatic delegation will travel to Havana for talks on restoring full relations.
Almost immediately, travel to Cuba will be restrictive, Americans banking services will operate on the island, American companies will be able to do business in Cuba and there will be increased communication between the two countries, Obama said. The president added that the U.S. and Cuba can coordinate on issues of "health, migration, counterterrorism, drug trafficking and disaster response."
But the president alone cannot bring an end to an embargo imposed in 1960, originally through executive actions. It will take an act of Congress to formally lift the embargo that has stifled the Cuban economy, harmed U.S.-Latin American relations and prevented Cuban Americans from visiting their families and supporting them financially.