The U.S. and Cuba swapped prisoners on Wednesday. (Photo: Stewart Cutler/flickr/cc)
Following Wednesday's momentous prisoner swap, U.S. officials said the country will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than 50 years, including re-opening of the American embassy in Havana which has been shuttered for nearly half a century.
In a speech on Wednesday, President Barack Obama called the U.S. embargo against Cuba "a failure."
"We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries," Obama said. The deal, which involved trading American contractor Alan Gross for the last remaining members of the so-called Cuban Five, will "begin a new chapter among the nations of the America" and move beyond a "rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born," Obama added.
A full end to the economic blockade against Cuba would require legislation by Congress, but the administration signaled that it would welcome that move by lawmakers. Immediate changes set to be implemented include loosening restrictions on all travel categories, remittances, and banking and financial transactions.
"The dinosaurs in Miami who have kept US-Cuba relations in the Stone Age are finally dying out," human rights activist Medea Benjamin, who lived in Cuba for 4 years and has worked for 30 years to normalize relations, told Common Dreams. "Obama's announcement is a recognition that the new generation of Cubans agree with the majority of Americans that the embargo is a relic of the Cold War that should be put to rest. Now we just have to overcome the dinosaurs in Congress."
The deal comes after 18 months of secret negotiations in Canada, as well as a meeting in the Vatican, and one final 45-minute telephone call between Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro on Tuesday.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest released a statement Wednesday admitting its decades-long failure in Cuban relations. "It is clear that decades of U.S. isolation of Cuba have failed to accomplish our enduring objective of promoting the emergence of a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba," the statement said. "We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse."
Guardian journalist Ewan McCaskill called the deal "a [b]reakthrough in U.S.-Cuban relations after a wasted half-century of mindless hostility and sanctions."
Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said the change in policy towards Cuba was prompted by a political shift in Latin America that has seen the U.S. become increasingly isolated diplomatically in the region.
"Relations between Latin America and the Obama administration have been the worst probably of any U.S. administration in decades," Weisbrot said on Wednesday. "This will help, but new sanctions against Venezuela will also raise questions in the hemisphere about whether this is a change in direction or merely a giving up on a strategy that has failed for more than 50 years."
"Because of the historic transition in Latin America over the past 15 years, with left governments elected in most of the region, basically the rules and norms were changed for the whole hemisphere. Various Latin American governments—and not just those on the left—have been increasingly vocal in recent years that the status quo cannot stand, and that Cuba must be treated as an equal, and welcomed into fora such as the Summit of the Americas," Weisbrot said. "Washington’s Cuba policy is being pulled into the 21st Century thanks to this regional shift."
The U.S. and Cuba exchanged prisoners Wednesday morning as part of a landmark deal that paves the way for an overhaul of American relations with the island nation and allows U.S. contractor Alan Gross, as well as the last three members of the so-called Cuban Five, to go home.
President Barack Obama is expected to announce Gross' release at noon.
Gross' "humanitarian" release by Cuba was accompanied by a separate spy swap, the officials said. Cuba also freed a U.S. intelligence source who has been jailed in Cuba for more than 20 years, although authorities did not identify that person for security reasons. The U.S. released three Cuban intelligence agents convicted of espionage in 2001.
President Barack Obama is also set to announce a broad range of diplomatic and regulatory measures in what officials called the most sweeping change in U.S. policy toward Cuba since the 1961 embargo was imposed.
The Cuban Five were a group of intelligence officers who were convicted of espionage in 2001, allegedly for collecting information on U.S. military bases and Cuban-American leaders in exile. The three who were included in the swap are Gerardo Hernandez, Luis Medina, and Antonio Guerrero.
Gross was arrested by Cuban authorities in 2009 while working to bring satellite phones and computer equipment to the island's Jewish communities. Although Gross had traveled to Cuba as part of a U.S. Agency for International Development program, he did not have the permits required under Cuban law to distribute communications equipment. He was arrested under suspicion of espionage and convicted of "acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state."
Wednesday's announcement that the U.S. will move toward restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba will also make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba and do business with the Cuban people by extending general licenses, officials said. While the more liberal travel restrictions won't allow for tourism, they will permit greater American travel to the island.
Secretary of State John Kerry has also been instructed to review Cuba's place on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, potentially paving the the way a lift on certain economic and political sanctions.
Writing at Vox.com, Ezra Klein outlines what each nation has agreed to as part of the new agreement:
What the US will give Cuba
Diplomatic opening: The U.S. will take steps toward restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba, severed since 1961.
Embassy in Havana: This will include the goal of reopening a US embassy in Havana in the coming months. The embassy has been closed for over half a century.
Release alleged Cuban spies: The US will release three Cubans who were convicted of espionage and imprisoned in the US: Gerardo Hernandez, Luis Medina, and Antonio Guerrero. All three prisoners were members of the "Wasp Network," a group that spied on prominent members of the Cuban-American community. CNN reports that Hernandez, the group's leader, was also linked to the downing of two two civilian planes operated by Brothers to the Rescue, a U.S.-based dissident group.
Easing business and travel restrictions: The U.S. will make it easier for Americans to obtain licenses to do business in Cuba, and to travel to the island. CNN reports that the new rules still won't permit American tourism, but will make it easier to visit for other purposes.
Easing banking restrictions: Americans will be able to use credit and debit cards while in Cuba.
Higher remittance limits: Americans will be able to send up to $2000 per year to family members in Cuba. Cuban-American remittances are a major source of income for many Cuban families.
Small-scale imports of Cuban cigars and alcohol: US travelers will be able to import up to $400 in goods from Cuba, including $100 in alcohol and tobacco products.
Review of basis for sanctions: Secretary of State John Kerry has been ordered to review Cuba's status as a "state sponsor of terrorism." If his review determines that Cuba no longer deserves that status, that will be a first step towards lifting at least some US sanctions.
What Cuba will give the US
Release Alan Gross: US contractor Alan Gross had been imprisoned in Cuba for the last five years on charges of attempting to undermine the Cuban government. His detention has been a major issue for the US and the Obama administration. He has been released and is on his way back to the United States.
Release political prisoners: Cuba will release 53 political prisoners from a list provided by the United States. CNN also reports that Cuba is releasing a US intelligence source who has been imprisoned in Cuba for more than 20 years, but it is not clear whether that individual was one of the 53 included on the list.
Increased internet access: Cuba will allow its citizens increased access to the internet. The US has long sought this as a means of increasing pressure within Cuba for democratic reform.
Access by the UN: Cuba will allow officials from the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to return to its territory.