In the biggest change to U.S.-Cuba relations in more than five decades, President Barack Obama and Raúl Castro each announced Wednesday that the Cold War-era enemies are trying to normalize relations and have engaged in a prisoner swap involving two jailed Americans and three Cuban spies imprisoned in the United States.
The mutual prisoner release involved jailed USAID contractor Alan Gross, whose five-year imprisonment had become a symbol of Cuba’s repression and, Obama said, a “major obstacle” in talks between the two nations.
The talks, held in Canada, involved Vatican officials and were spurred by Pope Francis, who had urged rapprochement. Though cheered by many, Obama’s announcement drew condemnation from Castro critics in Miami’s Cuban exile community, where the U.S. president was branded as an “Appeaser in Chief.”
Obama said the U.S. plans to open a U.S. embassy in Havana — closed in 1961 — and would allow for increased travel and cash-remittances by U.S. citizens to the island. Obama also said the U.S. would review whether to designate Cuba a state-terrorism sponsor. Obama said it was time for the U.S. to lift some restrictions.
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“No other nation joins us in imposing these sanctions, and it has had little effect beyond providing the Cuban government with a rationale for restrictions on its people,” Obama said, pointing out he was born just two years after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959.
“Today, Cuba is still governed by the Castros and the Communist Party that came to power half a century ago.”
At the same time Obama spoke to a U.S. audience, Raúl Castro announced in Cuba that his government would release 53 political prisoners in addition to the release of Gross and another unnamed prisoner.
“These 50 years have shown, isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach,” Castro said. “I call on the government of the United States to remove the obstacles that block or restrict the ties between our countries,” he said. “In particular, travel, direct postal service and telecommunications.... We must learn the art of living in a civilized fashion with our differences.”
Phrases like that from a Castro coupled with Obama’s announcement had leaders of Miami’s heavily Republican Cuban exile community fuming. They say they’ll fight in Congress to defund Obama’s efforts to scale back the various laws and sanctions against Cuba that have existed since 1960.
President Obama’s decision and the subsequent criticism 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 sitting U.S. Sen. Marco 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.”
Hillary Clinton, the presidential frontrunner among Democrats, has voiced her opposition to the embargo in the past but did not make any public statements on Tuesday.
Cuba also released a non-American U.S. intelligence ‘asset’ along with Gross. Officials said the spy had been held for nearly 20 years and was responsible for some of the most important counterintelligence prosecutions that the United States has pursed in recent decades. The prisoner was not identified.
“He provided the information that led to the identification and conviction of Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) senior analyst Ana Belen Montes; former Department of State official Walter Kendall Myers and his spouse Gwendolyn Myers; and members of the Red Avispa network, or ‘Wasp Network,’ in Florida, which included members of the so-called “Cuban Five,” said Brian P. Hale, Director of Public Affairs Office of the Director of National Intelligence, in a statement.
“In light of his sacrifice on behalf of the United States, securing his release from prison after 20 years — in a swap for three of the Cuban spies he helped put behind bars — is fitting closure to this Cold World chapter of U.S.-Cuban relations,” Hale added.
Rubio said in a statement that he intended to use his role on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee “to make every effort to block this dangerous and desperate attempt by the President to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people’s expense. Appeasing the Castro brothers will only cause other tyrants from Caracas to Tehran to Pyongyang to see that they can take advantage of President Obama’s naiveté during his final two years in office.”
In Washington, Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters that he would seek Rubio’s expertise in advising the Senate on policy toward Cuba.
But Rubio’s fellow Florida colleague in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he was “cautiously optimistic,” according to a press release issued by his office. Nelson, however, said he wanted to see more reforms in Cuba.
Former Florida Governor and Sen. Bob Graham, one of Florida’s most respected Democrats, told the Washington Post in an interview Tuesday night that he would have preferred moving toward normalizing relations “on a more incremental basis.” The administration “went for the long play” instead, he told the Post.
“We’re in a situation now where we have made a very generous offer to the Cuban government and don’t have leverage to make sure that those commitments filter down to the Cuban people,” Graham said.
Like Rubio, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said he wanted to use his position in Congress to stop Obama. Diaz-Balart sits on two budget committees that oversee the U.S. Treasury and the State Department, and he said he’ll advocate withholding money from both agencies.
“Alan Gross should never have spent one day in prison and we are glad that he will finally be reunited with his family,” Diaz-Balart said in a statement.
“However the way that his release was achieved is outrageous and proves that once again, President Obama is the Appeaser-in-Chief who is willing to provide unprecedented concessions to a brutal dictatorship that opposes U.S. interests at every opportunity,” Diaz-Balart said.
While sentiments like that are popular among many Cuban exiles and Republicans in Miami-Dade County, hardline attitudes against the embargo have been thawing over the years as younger Cuban-Americans have less emotional attachment to their forbears’ homeland and as newer Cubans come to the United States for more economic than political reasons.
Florida International University has polled Cubans in Miami-Dade yearly since 1991 and recently found that support for the embargo has steadily declined while support for unrestricted travel has increased.
The Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, chaired by Obama supporter Jorge Mas, had a muted response to Obama’s action.
Notably, the statement did not directly express support for the president’s decision. Instead, the CANF wrote that the success of the new policy will hinge on “whether or not the Cuban political prisoners who have been released are not subject to a carousel of re-arrests and harassment as has been the norm, that the acts of repression against the Damas de Blanco and all other non-violent opposition and civil society groups permanently cease, that all Cubans are given unrestricted access to internet and social media and that there is substantial, unreversed, progress in human, economic, civil and political rights for all of the Cuban people.”
For Diaz-Balart, the Cuba embargo is political as well as personal. His cousin is Fidel Castro’s son and the Diaz-Balart family has been a bulwark of Castro opposition in Congress. The congressman’s brother, former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, helped enshrine the U.S.-Cuba embargo in federal law in 1996 after members of a group called Brothers to the Rescue were shot down by Cuban jets during air flights to help rafters in the Straits of Florida as they escaped the island.
Under the law known as Helms-Burton, the United States can’t lift the embargo until Cuba releases political prisoners, allows for free and fair elections and makes free-market reforms.
Maggie Khuly, a sister of one of the Brothers to the Rescue shootdown victims named Armando Alejandre Jr., said the families were outraged by the president’s decision. “I was expecting this, but I can’t believe it,” she said. “No one (in the federal government) had the decency of telling us anything.”
“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.”
Five Cuban spies who infiltrated the Brothers to the Rescue were charged, convicted and imprisoned as a result. Two have served out their sentences.
The remaining three were released Wednesday, including Gerardo Hernandez, the only one of the Cuban Five who was serving a life sentence for the murder conspiracy behind the 1996 shootdown.
In response to questions, the Justice Department issued a statement noting that the spies “were lawfully and fairly convicted” by a Miami federal jury. The department had been asked whether the president’s commutations of the three mens’ prison sentences resulted from their supporters’ criticism about the fairness of their prosecution.
“The decision to commute the sentences of Gerardo Hernandez and his co-defendants has nothing at all to do with the righteousness and soundness of the prosecution,” Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon told the Miami Herald.
For the family of Gross, the news was thrilling. His sister, Bonnie Rubinstein, heard the news from a cousin, who saw it on television, the Associated Press reported. “We’re like screaming and jumping up and down,” she told AP in a brief telephone interview from her home in Texas.
Gross, released on the first day Hanukkah, was working on a U.S. Agency for International Development contract and was on his fifth trip to Cuba on December 3, 2009, when he was arrested for secretly bringing satellite communications equipment into Cuba as part of the agency’s pro-democracy programs.
He had improved Internet communications for Cuba’s Jewish community, who were not aware he was working for the U.S. government, and hoped to spread the program to other target groups. Members of the Jewish community have rallied for Gross’ release.
“This is the best Hanukkah that I’ll be celebrating for a long time,” Gross said at a press conference.
Gross, who is in poor health and has lost significant weight, had vowed on his birthday last spring that one way or another it would be the last year he would spend in a Cuba jail. He was serving a 15-year sentence.
The continued imprisonment of Gross’ has been a stumbling block in any improvement in relations between Havana and Washington, and the United States had long called for his humanitarian release.
The White House denied that Gross was directly part of the prisoner swap. Instead, Cuba’s government said he was being released as part of a “goodwill” gesture and that the only prisoner exchanged was an as-yet-unnamed U.S. agent.
Obama hailed the release of Gross when he addressed the nation on television at noon. He also indirectly spoke to the U.S. city most affected by Cuba policy: Miami.
“The city of Miami is only 200 miles or so from Havana. Countless thousands of Cubans have come to Miami — on planes and makeshift rafts; some with little but the shirt on their back and hope in their hearts,” Obama said, mentioning it’s “often referred to as the capital of Latin America.”
Obama said Miami is “a demonstration of what the Cuban people can achieve, and the openness of the United States to our family to the South.”
However, Obama pointed out, the United States has longstanding ties to China and to Vietnam. He said Cuba ought to be next.
“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,” Obama said. “But today we are making these changes because it is the right thing to do. Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future –- for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere, and for the world.”
Miami Herald reporters Jay Weaver, Maureen Whitefield, Jim Wyss, Patricia Mazzei, Nora Gámez Torres and Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report.