In a move to wipe away one of the Cold War’s last vestiges, President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced that the United States and Cuba will start talks on restoring full diplomatic relations for the first time in the half-century since the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.
“Today America chooses to cut loose the shackles of thepast, so as to reach for a better future for the Cuban people, for theAmerican people, for our entire hemisphere and for the world,” Obama declared at the White House.
The stunning shift came directly after Cuba released imprisoned U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross and a U.S. intelligence asset, while the United States freed three convicted Cuban spies in a tit-for-tat that U.S. officials insisted was not a “swap.”
Some Republicans and Democrats vowed to oppose Obama’s new policy, which will also include making it easier for Americans to travel to the Socialist-run island 90 miles from Florida beaches and return with consumer goods – including Cuba’s fabled rum and iconic cigars.
“To those who oppose the steps I'm announcing today, let me saythat 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 andexpect a different result.”
The dramatic announcement capped 18 months of secret negotiations – early diplomatic flirtations in the spring of 2013, a first meeting of top officials hosted by Canada, a series of furtive exchanges there and at the Vatican, a rare letter from Pope Francis urging Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro to find common ground, a final meeting at the Holy See this fall, and ultimately a phone call between Castro and Obama on Tuesday. Fidel Castro was not a part of the negotiations, top U.S. officials told reporters.
“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 worldas it is,” Obama said.
The conversation between Obama and Raúl Castro, which U.S. officials said ran between 45 minutes and an hour, was the first such contact since the 1959 Cuban revolution that swept Fidel Castro to power and quickly aligned Havana with Moscow, leading to a punishing U.S. economic embargo. The collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War did not lead Washington to end its punitive sanctions, ultimately driving a wedge between the United States and much of Latin America, as well as allies like Canada and most nations of Europe.
“I look forwardto engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo,” Obama said. But that was sure to be an uphill fight in the Republican-controlled Congress that convenes in January. Both parties include members who support the embargo or lifting it, while business and agricultural interests in the United States have increasingly lined up behind removing the economic restrictions.
Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who will take the reins of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the new Congress, vowed to scrutinize the new policy but stopped well short of opposing it.
“The new U.S. policy announced by the administration is no doubt sweeping, and as of now there is no real understanding as to what changes the Cuban government is prepared to make,” Corker said in a statement. “We will be closely examining the implications of these major policy changes in the next Congress.”
But the outgoing Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Democratic Bob Menendez of New Jersey, was expected to deliver a full-throated denunciation of the policy.
And Republican House Speaker John Boehner blasted the decision as "another in a long line of mindless concessions to a dictatorship that brutalizes its people and schemes with our enemies."
The White House cannot completely lift the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba -- that will require action by Congress. But Obama unveiled executive actions to ease restrictions on trips by U.S. citizens to Cuba. Those travelers will also be able to buy Cuban goods for personal use, including up to $100 in alcohol or tobacco products, meaning that at least some Americans will be able to bring home some of the island's famous rum and cigars.
“We cannot completely lift the travel ban" without Congress, one official said on a conference call organized by the White House. "We are authorizing as much travel as we possibly can within the constraints of the legislation.”
In practice, that will mean granting travel licenses to all travelers in categories that Congress has already designated as permitted to go to Cuba. Those include: family visits, official U.S. government travel, journalism, professional research or meetings, educational exchanges, religious activities, public performances (including sporting events), and humanitarian work.
Obama will also expand financial connections between the United States and Cuba, notably raising the amount of "remittances" -- essentially, tranfers of cash from Cuban-Americans to relatives in Cuba -- allowed from $500 every three months to $2,000.
The scope of the policy shift was a surprise, but the Obama Administration had previewed the potential change when longtime Obama foreign policy aide Antony Blinken testified in a Senate hearing in November on his confirmation to the number-two job at the State Department. Blinken was confirmed Tuesday.
It was not clear whether Obama's much-discussed December 2013 handshake wtih Raúl Castro at a memorial service for the late South African leader Nelson Mandela was part of the warming relations.
Gross had been sentenced in 2011 to 15 years in prison in connection with an effort to create a communications network outside Cuban government control. Cuba freed him on humanitarian grounds as part of a broader deal that saw each side free intelligence assets.
The United States and Cuba have had no embassies -- or ambassadors -- since 1961. Each side has an "interests section" housed in another country's embassy.