Changing a relationship frozen in time for more than 50 years, President Barack Obama ushered in a new era of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations Wednesday that could bring more trade, support for Cuba’s nascent entrepreneurs and more open communications with the island.
But as the president prepared to send a senior administration delegation to Havana early next year, his move provoked the ire of South Florida’s influential Cuban-American congressional delegation, who vowed to try to block his policies.
The release of two Americans imprisoned in Cuba and three convicted Cuban spies serving long prison terms in the United States paved the way for the historic thaw.
Obama not only said that the U.S. and Cuba would work toward reestablishing embassies in their respective capitals but also that the United States planned a series of measures that would increase U.S. travel and trade with Cuba and allow a freer flow of information to and from the island. The U.S. also is reviewing whether Cuba should remain on a list of state sponsors of terrorism.
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The U.S. embargo, which can only be lifted by an act of Congress, remains in effect. But Obama, who has long wanted to make major steps toward an improved relationship, seems to have pushed what he is able to do under executive authority to the outer limits.
As U.S.-Cuba relations soured after the 1959 Cuban revolution, the United States broke off diplomatic relations Jan. 3, 1961, and the next five decades were marked by hostilities that included a U.S. trade embargo against the island, the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion, and a communist state that became increasingly hardline under Fidel Castro.
Separation of families and a huge exodus of Cubans to the United States also were byproducts of the bitter relationship.
“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” Obama said. “Neither the American nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”
The news was greeted in Miami, which has become the capital of Cuban exile, with elation, heartbreak, anger, suspicion and caution. In his remarks, the president made mention of the countless Cubans who have come to the city often with little more than “hope in their hearts” and the “enormous contributions” that they have made to the United States.
“To those who oppose the steps I’m announcing today, let me say that I respect your passion and share your commitment to liberty and democracy,” Obama said. “The question is how we uphold that commitment. I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.”
Obama made his remarks at the same time Cuban leader Raúl Castro shared the news that the U.S. and Cuba would be normalizing relations with his country, that it had released U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor Alan Gross from prison for humanitarian reasons and that three Cuban spies would be coming home.
U.S. officials said Castro also independently decided to release 53 political prisoners whose cases had been advocated for by the United States, and pledged to increase Internet connections for Cuban citizens.
Alan Gross, who was arrested by the Cubans on Dec. 3, 2009, for smuggling military-grade telecommunications equipment to Cuba, had been serving a 15-year sentence and his continued incarceration had put the brakes on any improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations.
The United States released three Cuban spies who were serving lengthy prison terms in connection with the Feb. 24, 1996, shoot-down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes by Cuba and the deaths of four exile pilots. Two other spies had already finished their terms and are back in Cuba.
But the three Cubans weren’t swapped for Gross, but rather for a CIA agent who had been jailed in Cuba for nearly 20 years and was responsible for some of the most important counterintelligence prosecutions that the United States has pursued in recent decades.
The United States had insisted it couldn’t do a spy-for-spy swap involving Gross because he wasn’t a spy.
In his televised address, Castro highlighted that there are still deep differences between the two nations and that the embargo — the “heart of the matter” — would continue to be a sticking point.
“The economic, commercial, and financial blockade, which causes enormous human and economic damages to our country, must cease,” he said.
The United States also emphasized that Cuba’s approach to human rights, democracy and civil society were areas of strong differences. But a senior U.S. administration official said that renewing diplomatic relations was a better way “to advance our interests and values.”
“Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people, and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas,” the president said at noon from the White House.
High-level talks between the two countries have been underway since June 2013 at various third-party locations, including Canada and the Vatican. Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, and Ricardo Zúñiga, National Security Council senior director for the Western Hemisphere, spearheaded the U.S. team.
Pope Francis also intervened, sending rare personal letters to both Obama and Castro, urging them to find a way forward on the plight of the prisoners and other matters.
Gross flew to freedom accompanied by his wife Judy and a U.S. congressional delegation on Wednesday — the first day of Hanukkah.
At a news conference in Washington, D.C., he thanked all who had worked for his freedom and said, “What a blessing to be a citizen of the United States of America.”
“In my last letter to President Obama, I wrote that despite my five-year tenure in captivity I would not want to trade places with him, and I certainly would not want to trade places on this glorious day,” Gross said.
The three Cubans — Gerardo Hernández Nordelo, Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labañino Salazar — were released from prisons in California, Marianna, Florida, and Kentucky.
“Five years of isolation notwithstanding, I did not need daily briefings to be cognizant of what are undoubtedly incredible challenges facing our nation and the global community,” Gross said.
The final details of the new era in Cuba relations and the release of the respective prisoners were worked out in a phone call between Obama and Castro — the first direct phone call between U.S. and Cuban leaders since Fidel Castro took power.
Perhaps cognizant of the jolt the news would cause in Miami where many exiles have long been convinced that the only change in U.S.-Cuban relations would come when Fidel Castro was dead and his brother Raúl was no longer in power, Obama said: “Change is hard — in our own lives, and in the lives of nations. And change is even harder when we carry the heavy weight of history on our shoulders.”
For those in Miami who oppose closer U.S. relations without significant concessions on the part of Cuba, Obama has been branded the “appeaser in chief.”
Maggie Khuly, sister of one of the victims of the shoot-down, Armando Alejandre Jr., said she and the other families were outraged by the president’s decision.
“We’re giving them a lot of stuff in payment for the exchange of a hostage,” Khuly told the Miami Herald. “What about human rights? It’s just incredible. I’m extremely disappointed in the president.”
But on the other end of the spectrum, Vivian Mannerud, who has pioneered free travel to Cuba and advocated better relations with Havana, said, “I’m so happy. This has been so many years in coming, so much blood, sweat and tears.”
She predicted renewed relations would be the impetus to chip away at the embargo and repeal the Helms-Burton Act, which sets a high bar before the embargo can be lifted. Among other things, it stipulates that there must be a transitional government in place with neither Castro in power and that Cuba must hold free, fair and internationally supervised elections within 18 months of a transitional government assuming power.
“To me, this is the true end of the Cold War. Let the talks begin,” said Mannerud, who runs Airline Brokers, a company that used to be in the Cuba charter business but now sells airline tickets to Cuba and makes other travel arrangements.
As part of Obama’s directive to move toward reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson will travel to Cuba in January as the head of a U.S. delegation for the next round of U.S.-Cuba migration talks.
“Where we can advance shared interests, we will — on issues like health, migration, counterterrorism, drug trafficking and disaster response,” Obama said.
“I look forward to being the first secretary of state in 60 years to visit Cuba,” Kerry said. “I was a seventeen-year-old kid watching on a black and white television set when I first heard an American president talk of Cuba as an ‘imprisoned island.”
After severing full diplomatic relations in 1961, the U.S. and Cuban embassies remained shuttered until interests sections were established in both capitals to handle consular work, migration and other issues between the two countries.
Although these interests sections are housed in the old embassy buildings, they are run under the auspices of the Swiss government.
Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said he planned to use his role as incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee “to block this dangerous and desperate attempt by the President to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people’s expense.”
Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, who sits on budget committees that oversee the U.S. Treasury and State Department, said he’s in favor of withholding money from both.
But former President Jimmy Carter said he hopes Congress will go even further than Obama’s actions.
“I am delighted with the wise and courageous decision of President Obama to improve relations with Cuba, and congratulate Alan Gross and his family on his freedom,” Carter said. “I hope the U.S. Congress will take steps to remove the economic sanctions against the Cuban people, which have proven to be ineffective in furthering democracy and freedom.”
Under Carter’s watch, the interest sections were established in each country.
Obama’s decision could also become an early political issue in the 2016 race for president. Two potential Republican White House candidates from Miami, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Rubio have long espoused a get-tougher approach with Cuba.
Bush lauded the release of Gross but said he was uncomfortable with the idea of a prisoner swap. In a statement, he said Obama’s action “undermines America’s credibility and undermines the quest for a free and democratic Cuba.”
“Cuba is a dictatorship with a disastrous human rights record,” Bush wrote, “and now President Obama has rewarded those dictators.”
Potential Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has previously said that the embargo has outlived its usefulness.
“I am deeply relieved by Alan Gross’ safe return to the United States and I support President Obama’s decision to change course on Cuba policy, while keeping the focus on our principal objective — supporting the aspirations of the Cuban people for freedom,” Clinton said.
In charting a new course for Cuba, the United States said it was also revamping its financial relationship with the island to the extent allowed by the embargo.
The proposals would allow freer travel to Cuba by Americans but would not allow visits whose sole purpose is tourism. They would also allow export of goods needed to support the activities of Cuba’s self-employed sector — the cuentapropistas, inputs for small private farmers and building materials that everyday Cubans need to construct and improve their homes.
Regulations also will be written to allow the commercial export of computers, related software and other telecommunications equipment. U.S. telecommunications providers would be able to establish infrastructure in Cuba to support improved telecommunications between the U.S. and Cuba.
The president’s action does not lift the travel ban for all Americans, but it does allow 12 groups of authorized travelers, including those on humanitarian projects and business people involved in permitted activities, to visit Cuba under general licenses — meaning they won’t have to seek prior approval from the United States.
Twice previously in 2009 and 2011, Obama relaxed restrictions on travel to Cuba.
U.S. travelers to Cuba will be allowed to bring back $400 worth of Cuban goods per trip, including $100 worth of alcohol and tobacco products. That means that Cuba's famed cigars and rum will be readily available for personal use but not for commercial sale.
Eventually, the U.S. would allow Cuba travelers to use credit and debit cards on the island and U.S. financial institutions also will be permitted to open correspondent accounts at Cuban banks.
In a move that should make it easier for Cuba to buy U.S. products, the “cash in advance” requirement will be revised to “cash before transfer of title” for eligible products. The U.S. will also allow increased remittances to Cuban nationals, boosting the level from $500 per quarter to $2,000.
None of these economic changes will take effect, however, until a series of new regulations are written.
Miamian Andy Gomez, a senior policy adviser for the Poblete Tamargo law firm in Washington, said he was taking the news of changes with a grain of salt. “Business is driving politics to a great extent,” he said. “I’m very cautious. I need to see what the next meeting in Havana will bring.”
Senior U.S. officials said that U.S. Cuba policy had isolated the United States as the world has changed and has caused a rift with Latin American nations. They were hopeful that with movement on the Cuba issue, U.S. relations with the Americas would also improve.
The United States and Cuba will both be at the Summit of the Americas in Panama next year and U.S. officials said human rights and democracy will be major themes at the gathering.
“It’s a huge burden, if not an albatross on our relations in the Americas,” said a senior U.S. official. “This could be a transformative event for the United States in Latin America.”
Staff writer Marc Caputo and Jay Weaver and El Nuevo Herald staff writer Enrique Flor contributed to this report.