The U.S. will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, ending a half-century of Cold War estrangement with the Communist nation just 90 miles off the Florida coast, President Obama said Wednesday.
The thaw was the result of 18 months of hush-hush talks between the two nations, including secret meetings in Canada and the personal involvement of Pope Francis.
The sudden and shocking change in policy was announced simultaneously by Obama in Washington and Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana at midday after a phone call between the two leaders and the release of an American contractor imprisoned in Cuba for five years.
As part of the policy shift, Obama is easing restrictions on travel to Cuba, including for family visits, official government business and educational activities, and he is seeking to expand economic ties.
The longstanding ban on Cuba’s famous cigars is also gone; American travelers will be able to return home with up to $100 of tobacco or alcohol products from the island for personal consumption.
It all represents an extraordinary undertaking by Obama without Congress’ authorization as he begins the final years of his presidency.
“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,” said Obama. “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.”
The U.S., he said, will establish an embassy in Havana, where the old one was shuttered in January 1961 after the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power on Jan. 1, 1959.
Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, said, “This decision of President Obama deserves the respect and acknowledgment of our people.” He added, “We have to learn the art of living together with our differences in a different way.”
The old way, during the 1960s, included the failed Bay of Pigs invasion to topple the Castro regime; failed CIA murder plots against Fidel Castro, and the nuclear gamesmanship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Relations between the two nations remained in a deep freeze even as the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Communist nations of Eastern Europe embraced democracy and turned toward the West.
The seeds of change were planted after Obama’s 2012 reelection, when he huddled with advisers and asked them to “think big” about a second-term agenda, including the possibilities of new starts with longstanding U.S. foes such as Iran and Cuba, The Associated Press reported.
On Wednesday, church bells pealed across Cuba, and teachers paused for a moment to mark the new relationship between the two longtime enemies.
But the bold stroke was greeted with skepticism and disdain by those opposing liberalized contact with Cuba.
“Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, much less normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom — and not one second earlier,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also denounced the rapprochement. “Today’s policy announcement is misguided and fails to understand the nature of the regime in Cuba that has exerted its authoritarian power over the Cuban people for 55 years,” said Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants.
But Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro characterized Obama’s move as “a gesture that was courageous and historically necessary.”
The deal was facilitated by a swap of long-imprisoned spies, Cuba’s promise to release 53 Cubans identified as political prisoners by the United States government, and Havana’s release of Alan Gross, 65, of Maryland, who was arrested in 2009 while working in Cuba.
During five years of detention, Gross lost 100 pounds, several teeth and sight in one eye, and he contemplated suicide.
On Wednesday morning, he was picked up by a U.S. government jet in Havana and flown to Washington. The father of two traveled back to America with three U.S. lawmakers and his wife, Judy, who unceasingly led the call for his release. A corned beef on rye and bowls of popcorn were onboard for his trip home.
He was busted while working on a program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development to set up Internet access for Cuban Jews. Cuban authorities accused him of spying and sentenced him to 15 years in prison for crimes against the state.
He said he was innocent and described himself as a “trusting fool” for going to Cuba, but family members say he never got angry at the Cuban people — instead watching local baseball and jamming with his jailers.
“It’s good to be home,” an emotional Gross said in his lawyer’s office, with a pair of U.S. flags as the backdrop.
He quickly offered his support for the President’s move to alter America’s relationship with Cuba.
“Two wrongs never make a right,” said Gross. “I truly hope that we can now get beyond these mutually belligerent policies. … This is game-changing.”
While much will change, the long American embargo on Cuba — which forbids regular travel with the island nation and normal business dealings — will remain.
Only Congress can end the embargo, and that seems unlikely anytime soon, given how negatively Republicans reacted to the deal and the fact that the GOP will take full control of Capitol Hill in January.
The potential opening of the Cuban market could offer lucrative opportunities to American travel companies, farmers, energy producers and rum importers.
Obama and Raul Castro finalized details of the deal during an hourlong Tuesday phone chat. Obama said both men agreed the time was right for action. “We are choosing to cut loose the anchor of the past, because it is entirely necessary to reach a better future,” said Obama.
Their unlikely union was arranged in part by the Pope, who wrote letters to both men urging a change in the nations’ relationship, officials said. Cuban and American officials began secret meetings in June 2013, and at one point Francis hosted talks at the Vatican. “The holy father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision,” said a statement from the Vatican.
As part of the thaw, the U.S. will review its designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, the White House said, and is expected to lift the designation quickly.
Menendez noted that Cuba still harbors escaped cop-killer Joanne Chesimard, 67, who remains on the FBI Most Wanted List in the 1973 murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster.
“We view any changes in relations with Cuba as an opportunity to bring her back . . . to finish her sentence ,” State Police Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes said in a statement.
Cuban-Americans in New York and New Jersey called Obama’s speech historic — but not all agreed it was a step in the right direction. Older Cuban-Americans, especially those who fled the Castro regime, appeared more opposed than their children and grandchildren.
Manuel Dominguez, 48, came to the Artesano restaurant in Union City, N.J., to ponder the news. “This is going to open a lot of doors for everyone. It will help people here connect with Cubans,” Dominguez said. “I left Cuba when I was 10 years old. My brother still lives there. I hope this new direction helps us connect with our loved ones.”
His son Brandon Dominguez, 21, hopes this will help him to visit his father’s homeland one day. “I grew up here. I’ve never been to Cuba. I’d like to see it one day,” he said. “I hope this opens opportunities for both countries. There aren’t many opportunities for people there now.”
Cuban immigrant Chris Aleman, whose parents and brother still live there, had tears in his eyes when he heard the President’s speech. “I did watch the speech,” Aleman said in the West Village. “It made me very emotional. Finally we’ll have a relationship with Cuba, our families there. It’s not just about my family. This is good for everyone in Cuba.
In Miami’s Little Havana, there were tears of joy in a restaurant, applause in a local barbershop and several dozen protesters on the street.
“We shouldn’t do business with dictators,” said John Hernandez. “They’re assassins. They have killed Americans before. I feel disgraced.”
Others, like 27-year-old Daniel Lafuente, praised the olive branch extended by the White House.
“Now there’s going to be a greater enthusiasm for trying out new means of interacting economically, socially, culturally,” said the son of Cuban exiles. “It’s a really big step. Cuba is back on the map.”
ON A MOBILE DEVICE? CLICK HERE TO SEE THE KENNEDY VIDEO.
TRANSCRIPT: President Obama’s remarks on Cuba policy changes
Good afternoon. Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.
In the most significant changes in our policy in more than fifty years, 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. 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.
There’s a complicated history between the United States and Cuba. I was born in 1961 –- just over two years after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, and just a few months after the Bay of Pigs invasion, which tried to overthrow his regime. Over the next several decades, the relationship between our countries played out against the backdrop of the Cold War, and America’s steadfast opposition to communism. We are separated by just over 90 miles. But year after year, an ideological and economic barrier hardened between our two countries.
Meanwhile, the Cuban exile community in the United States made enormous contributions to our country –- in politics and business, culture and sports. Like immigrants before, Cubans helped remake America, even as they felt a painful yearning for the land and families they left behind. All of this bound America and Cuba in a unique relationship, at once family and foe.
Proudly, the United States has supported democracy and human rights in Cuba through these five decades. We have done so primarily through policies that aimed to isolate the island, preventing the most basic travel and commerce that Americans can enjoy anyplace else. And though this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, 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. Today, Cuba is still governed by the Castros and the Communist Party that came to power half a century ago.
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. Consider that for more than 35 years, we’ve had relations with China –- a far larger country also governed by a Communist Party. Nearly two decades ago, we reestablished relations with Vietnam, where we fought a war that claimed more Americans than any Cold War confrontation.
That’s why -– when I came into office -– I promised to re-examine our Cuba policy. As a start, we lifted restrictions for Cuban Americans to travel and send remittances to their families in Cuba. These changes, once controversial, now seem obvious. Cuban Americans have been reunited with their families, and are the best possible ambassadors for our values. And through these exchanges, a younger generation of Cuban Americans has increasingly questioned an approach that does more to keep Cuba closed off from an interconnected world.
While I have been prepared to take additional steps for some time, a major obstacle stood in our way –- the wrongful imprisonment, in Cuba, of a U.S. citizen and USAID sub-contractor Alan Gross for five years. Over many months, my administration has held discussions with the Cuban government about Alan’s case, and other aspects of our relationship. His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me, and to Cuba’s President Raul Castro, urging us to resolve Alan’s case, and to address Cuba’s interest in the release of three Cuban agents who have been jailed in the United States for over 15 years.
Today, Alan returned home –- reunited with his family at long last. Alan was released by the Cuban government on humanitarian grounds. Separately, in exchange for the three Cuban agents, Cuba today released one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba, and who has been imprisoned for nearly two decades. This man, whose sacrifice has been known to only a few, provided America with the information that allowed us to arrest the network of Cuban agents that included the men transferred to Cuba today, as well as other spies in the United States. This man is now safely on our shores.
Having recovered these two men who sacrificed for our country, I’m now taking steps to place the interests of the people of both countries at the heart of our policy.
First, I’ve instructed Secretary Kerry to immediately begin discussions with Cuba to reestablish diplomatic relations that have been severed since January of 1961. Going forward, the United States will reestablish an embassy in Havana, and high-ranking officials will visit Cuba.
Where we can advance shared interests, we will -– on issues like health, migration, counterterrorism, drug trafficking and disaster response. Indeed, we’ve seen the benefits of cooperation between our countries before. It was a Cuban, Carlos Finlay, who discovered that mosquitoes carry yellow fever; his work helped Walter Reed fight it. Cuba has sent hundreds of health care workers to Africa to fight Ebola, and I believe American and Cuban health care workers should work side by side to stop the spread of this deadly disease.
Now, where we disagree, we will raise those differences directly -– as we will continue to do on issues related to democracy and human rights in Cuba. But I believe that we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement. After all, these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach.
Second, I’ve instructed Secretary Kerry to review Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. This review will be guided by the facts and the law. Terrorism has changed in the last several decades. At a time when we are focused on threats from al Qaeda to ISIL, a nation that meets our conditions and renounces the use of terrorism should not face this sanction.
Third, we are taking steps to increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba. This is fundamentally about freedom and openness, and also expresses my belief in the power of people-to-people engagement. With the changes I’m announcing today, it will be easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, and Americans will be able to use American credit and debit cards on the island. Nobody represents America’s values better than the American people, and I believe this contact will ultimately do more to empower the Cuban people.
I also believe that more resources should be able to reach the Cuban people. So we’re significantly increasing the amount of money that can be sent to Cuba, and removing limits on remittances that support humanitarian projects, the Cuban people, and the emerging Cuban private sector.
I believe that American businesses should not be put at a disadvantage, and that increased commerce is good for Americans and for Cubans. So we will facilitate authorized transactions between the United States and Cuba. U.S. financial institutions will be allowed to open accounts at Cuban financial institutions. And it will be easier for U.S. exporters to sell goods in Cuba.
I believe in the free flow of information. Unfortunately, our sanctions on Cuba have denied Cubans access to technology that has empowered individuals around the globe. So I’ve authorized increased telecommunications connections between the United States and Cuba. Businesses will be able to sell goods that enable Cubans to communicate with the United States and other countries.
These are the steps that I can take as President to change this policy. The embargo that’s been imposed for decades is now codified in legislation. As these changes unfold, I look forward to engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo.
Yesterday, I spoke with Raul Castro to finalize Alan Gross’s release and the exchange of prisoners, and to describe how we will move forward. I made clear my strong belief that Cuban society is constrained by restrictions on its citizens. In addition to the return of Alan Gross and the release of our intelligence agent, we welcome Cuba’s decision to release a substantial number of prisoners whose cases were directly raised with the Cuban government by my team. We welcome Cuba’s decision to provide more access to the Internet for its citizens, and to continue increasing engagement with international institutions like the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross that promote universal values.
But I’m under no illusion about the continued barriers to freedom that remain for ordinary Cubans. The United States believes that no Cubans should face harassment or arrest or beatings simply because they’re exercising a universal right to have their voices heard, and we will continue to support civil society there. While Cuba has made reforms to gradually open up its economy, we continue to believe that Cuban workers should be free to form unions, just as their citizens should be free to participate in the political process.
Moreover, given Cuba’s history, I expect it will continue to pursue foreign policies that will at times be sharply at odds with American interests. I do not expect the changes I am announcing today to bring about a transformation of Cuban society overnight. But I am convinced that through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century.
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. 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. Moreover, it does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse. Even if that worked -– and it hasn’t for 50 years –- we know from hard-earned experience that countries are more likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to chaos. We are calling on Cuba to unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans by ending unnecessary restrictions on their political, social, and economic activities. In that spirit, we should not allow U.S. sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens that we seek to help.
To the Cuban people, America extends a hand of friendship. Some of you have looked to us as a source of hope, and we will continue to shine a light of freedom. Others have seen us as a former colonizer intent on controlling your future. José Martí once said, “Liberty is the right of every man to be honest.” Today, I am being honest with you. We can never erase the history between us, but we believe that you should be empowered to live with dignity and self-determination. Cubans have a saying about daily life: “No es facil” –- it’s not easy. Today, the United States wants to be a partner in making the lives of ordinary Cubans a little bit easier, more free, more prosperous.
To those who have supported these measures, I thank you for being partners in our efforts. In particular, I want to thank His Holiness Pope Francis, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is; the government of Canada, which hosted our discussions with the Cuban government; and a bipartisan group of congressmen who have worked tirelessly for Alan Gross’s release, and for a new approach to advancing our interests and values in Cuba.
Finally, our shift in policy towards Cuba comes at a moment of renewed leadership in the Americas. This April, we are prepared to have Cuba join the other nations of the hemisphere at the Summit of the Americas. But we will insist that civil society join us so that citizens, not just leaders, are shaping our future. And I call on all of my fellow leaders to give meaning to the commitment to democracy and human rights at the heart of the Inter-American Charter. Let us leave behind the legacy of both colonization and communism, the tyranny of drug cartels, dictators and sham elections. A future of greater peace, security and democratic development is possible if we work together — not to maintain power, not to secure vested interest, but instead to advance the dreams of our citizens.
My fellow Americans, 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. Today, Miami is often referred to as the capital of Latin America. But it is also a profoundly American city -– a place that reminds us that ideals matter more than the color of our skin, or the circumstances of our birth; a demonstration of what the Cuban people can achieve, and the openness of the United States to our family to the South. Todos somos Americanos.
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. 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.
Thank you. God bless you and God bless the United States of America.
TRANSCRIPT: Excerpts of Cuban President Raul Castro’s remarks on Cuba policy changes
…We carry forward, given the difficulties, with the actualization of our economic model to build a prosperous and sustainable socialism. There resulted a high-level dialogue, including a telephone conversation I had yesterday with President Barack Obama. We have been able to advance the solutions of some themes of interest to both nations…
…This decision of President Obama deserves the respect and acknowledgement of our people. I want to recognize the support of the Vatican, especially Pope Francis, to the betterment of the relations between Cuba and the U.S. Equally, to the Canadian government for helping realize the high-level dialogue between the two countries…
…This does not mean the principal issue has been resolved: the blockade which causes much human and economic damage to our country should cease. Although the blockade has become law, the President of the U.S. can modify it through executive actions…
…We propose to the U.S. government to adopt mutual measures to improve the bilateral climate and advance the normalization of links between our countries, based on the principles of international rights and the United Nations. Cuba reiterates it disposition to participate in organizations like the U.N…
…Recognizing we have profound differences — fundamentally in the themes of national sovereignty, human rights and foreign policy — we reiterate our disposition to dialogue on all these themes. I exhort the United States government to remove the obstacles that impede or restrict the links between our peoples, the families and the citizens of both countries. In particular, relative to travel, direct postal service and telecommunications…
The progress attained in the interchange show it is possible to find solutions to many problems… As we have repeated we should learn the art of coexistence in a civil manner with our differences.
TRANSCRIPT: Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks on Cuba policy changes
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.”
For five and a half decades since, our policy toward Cuba has remained virtually frozen, and done little to promote a prosperous, democratic and stable Cuba. Not only has this policy failed to advance America’s goals, it has actually isolated the United States instead of isolating Cuba.
Since 2009, President Obama has taken steps forward to change our relationship and improve the lives of the Cuban people by easing restrictions on remittances and family travel. With this new opening, the President has committed the United States to begin to chart an even more ambitious course forward.
Beginning more than twenty years ago, I have seen firsthand as three presidents — one Republican and two Democrats — have undertaken a similar effort to change the United States’ relationship with Vietnam. It wasn’t easy. It isn’t complete still today. But it had to start somewhere, and it has worked.
As we did with Vietnam, changing our relationship with Cuba will require an investment of time, energy and resources. Today’s step also reflects our firm belief that the risk and the cost of trying to turn the tide is far lower than the risk and cost of remaining stuck in an ideological cement of our own making.
This new course will not be without challenges, but it is based not on a leap of faith but on a conviction that it’s the best way to help bring freedom and opportunity to the Cuban people, and to promote America’s national security interests in the Americas, including greater regional stability and economic opportunities for American businesses.
In January, as part of the President’s directive to discuss moving toward re-establishment of diplomatic relations, my Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson will travel to Cuba to lead the U.S. Delegation to the next round of U.S.-Cuba Migration Talks. I look forward to being the first Secretary of State in 60 years to visit Cuba. At President Obama’s request, I have also asked my team to initiate a review of Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.
Going forward, a critical focus of our increased engagement will continue to be on improving the Cuban Government’s respect for human rights and advocating for democratic reforms within Cuba. Promoting freedom of speech and entrepreneurship and an active civil society will only strengthen Cuban society and help to reintegrate Cuba into the international community.
Dan Friedman is in Washington. Jeanne DeQuine is in Miami. With News Wire Services.
- Ethiopia, Eritrea Restore Diplomatic Relations After 20 Years of Strife
- Obama plans first presidential visit to Cuba in more than 88 years
- Obama Announces Plan To Store Nation’s Extra Stuff In Large Plastic Crate
- Obama to Make Historic Trip to Cuba Next Month
- Michelle Obama Announces New Memoir, Coming in November
- Obama Announces Start Of Annual D.C. Spooktacular
- President Obama Announces Financial Boost for My Brother’s Keeper
- Obama Announces Total Iraq Troop Withdrawal
- Obama Announces Major Climate Change Policy
- tells a sweet father-daughter story set against shaky diplomatic relations