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Obama moves to restore relations with Cuba

After more than half a century, the United States will seek to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and open an embassy in Havana.

After more than half a century of isolation, President Obama is dramatically shifting U.S. policy toward Cuba and moving to end more than a half century of Cold War-era conflict between the two countries. The U.S. and Cuba will immediately start discussions to normalize diplomatic relations, the White House announced Wednesday, 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 in announcing the new policy at the White House. “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 Wednesday morning and addressed the media in the afternoon. "This is a game changer, which I fully support," he told reporters. "It's good to be home."

The U.S. embargo on Cuba cannot be lifted without legislation, and Obama will likely need congressional support to fully restore diplomatic relations with the island nation. And while Obama said he hoped for “an honest and serious debate” with lawmakers, most Republicans, who will soon control both chambers of Congress, vowed to stymie Obama on what they view as a misguided policy and an overreach of his authority, as they did after Obama’s sweeping executive action on immigration earlier this year.

“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.”

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a key GOP foreign policy hawk, said he "will do all in my power to block the use of funds to open an embassy in Cuba." 

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But the public appears to be with the president on the issue: Polling shows a majority of Americans are in favor normalizing diplomatic relations with Havana.

Even without Congress, the administrative action is sweeping.

The governments will move 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.” 

“I’m under no illusion about the continued barriers to freedom that remain for ordinary Cubans," said Obama, who said he had spoken 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."

Opposition to the Castro regime has been concentrated in South Florida, where a large number of Cuban exiles live. That population has been a reliable source of votes and campaign contributions for Republicans, who took a hard line on communism during the Cold War. And their influence in the key presidential swing state has kept most Republicans firmly opposed any thaw in relations with Havana.

But new generations have different views than their parents and grandparents, and now even a narrow a majority of South Florida Cuban-Americans support ending the embargo, according to July poll from Florida International University.

Flake, who accompanied Gross on the flight home, is also of a newer generation of Republican lawmakers who favor a new approach. But Flake could find himself fairly lonely in his party, as Republicans seem likely to line up in opposition to this latest Obama executive action.

As with Obama’s immigration order, Republican opposition may make sense in the short term, but could hurt them down the road.

In a televised address in Cuba, Castro urged the U.S. to go further and lift the embargo.

“We have agreed to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations,” Castro said. “This does not mean that the main aspects have been resolved – the economic embargo, financial and trade embargo that causes enormous human and economic [pain]. I call on the government of the United States to remove the obstacles that impede or restrict the links and the bonds among our peoples.”

One result of the new policy: It’ll be easier for Americans to enjoy Cuban cigars, which long have been hard to obtain here. Under the new rules to be drawn up on exporting Cuban goods, Americans will be able to bring back up to $400 worth of Cuban general products, and up to $100 worth of alcohol and tobacco products, which must be for personal use.

Although general tourism will remain banned, the range of purposes for which Americans will be able to travel to Cuba will be significantly expanded, making it far easier for Americans to legally visit the island.

Kerry will immediately start discussions with Cuban government officials on the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, which were severed in January 1961. Currently, the only official U.S. presence in the country is under the auspices of the Swiss government. That relationship will end now.

And he will begin a review of Cuba's presence on a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation it's held since 1982.