US-Cuba relations: Live Report

Magan Crane and AFP reporters
Barack Obama will visit Cuba on March 21 and 22 -- the first visit by a US president since Calvin Coolidge in 1928 (AFP Photo/Doug Mills)

Washington (AFP) - 19:57 GMT - Heroes at home - The three Cuban spies released in the prisoner exchange are celebrated as heroes back home.

The trio, who spent more than 15 years behind bars, were the last remaining prisoners from the "Cuban Five," a group arrested in Miami in September 1998 and convicted in 2001 of spying for Cuba's communist government.

Havana has long insisted Gerardo Hernandez, 51; Ramon Labanino, 51; and Antonio Guerrero, 56 were not spying on the US government but rather on Cuban exile groups determined to overthrow then president Fidel Castro, who has since handed power to his younger brother Raul.

But a Miami court convicted them on charges including conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit espionage, conspiracy to commit crimes against the United States and acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government.

All the men have been named "Heroes of the Republic" in Cuba, with posters bearing their pictures adorning streets and government offices.

19:29 GMT - Presidential trip? - The White House leaves open the possiblity that Obama could visit Cuba after the historic thaw in relations.

"I certainly would not rule out a presidential visit," says White House press secretary Josh Earnest, however adding: "There is nothing on the schedule right now."

19:25 GMT - Cubanos - "To me, Cubanos, most of them, are incredibly kind, generous and talented," Gross says. "It pains me to see them treated so unjustly as a consequence of two governments' mutually belligerent policies.

"Two wrongs never make a right."

19:16 GMT - Happy coincidence - Shortly after Gross landed at Andrews Air Base this morning, Secretary of State John Kerry returned from a European trip so the two met and listened to the president.

"It was particularly cool to be sitting next to the secretary of state as he was hearing about his job description for the next couple of months," Gross said.

Kerry's office said the meeting was not planned, "but given the timing the Secretary wanted to personally meet with Alan and his family and friends."

19:11 GMT - Not forgotten - Gross thanks everyone who worked tirelessly on his behalf.

"It was crucial to my survival knowing that I was not forgotten. Your prayers and your actions have been comforting, reassuring and sustaining. And to my extended family, especially my sister Bonnie, my cousins and friends. Howard, our Shabbat group, and so many others who exemplify the true meaning of friendship, thank you.

"I do understand that there are many others who actively participated in securing my freedom, of whom I'm only nominally aware at this juncture. I promise I will express a more direct and personal gratitude just as soon as I know who you are.

19:05 GMT - Holidays - "Today is the first day of Hanukkah and so far it's the best Hanukkah I've ever celebrated," Gross says with a big smile, before noting that he had lost several teeth in captivity.

19:00 GMT - Gross speaks - Alan Gross begins his statement with holiday wishes and thanks to his wife off 44 years, Judith.

18:38 GMT - Repect - In Havana, Castro praises Obama's moves.

"This decision by President Obama deserves our people's respect and recognition," he says, also thanking the pope.

18:21 GMT - Cuban national - A US official confirms that the unnamed spy released with Gross is a Cuban national.

“Information provided by this person was instrumental in the identification and disruption of several Cuban intelligence operatives in the United States and ultimately led to a series of successful federal espionage prosecutions. This man, whose sacrifices were known only to a few, has spent nearly 20 years in a Cuban prison due to his efforts on behalf of the United States," the Director of National Intelligence says in a statement.

18:12 GMT - Gross in Washington - Alan Gross, now back in Washington after five years in a Cuban prison, is due to speak to reporters at 1830 GMT

17:53 GMT - Unravel - Rubio vows to undo the president's moves, "I intend to use every tool at our disposal in the majority to unravel as many of these changes as possible."

"This Congress is not going to lift the embargo."

17:51 GMT - An 'illusion' - "This entire policy shift announced today is based on an illusion, on a lie, the lie and the illusion that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people. All this is going to do is give the Castro regime which controls every aspect of Cuban life the opportunity to manipulate these changes to perpetuate itself in power," Rubio says.

"It is just another concession to a tyranny by the Obama administration rather than a defense of every universal and inalienable right that our country was founded on and stands for. In short, what these changes are going to do is they will tighten this regime's grip on power for decades to come.

17:42 GMT - No commitment - A few hours after releasing a written statement, Senator Marco Rubio steps in front of the camera to expand on his frustration with today's news.

"The White House has conceded everything and gained little," he says. "They gained no commitment on the part of the cuban regime to freedom of press or freedom of speech or elections, no binding commitment was made to truly open up the internet. No commitment was made to allowing the establishment of political parties or to even begin the semblance of a transition to a democracy.

17:36 GMT - Facilitator - Pope Francis congratulates the two contries for the historic thaw.

"The Holy Father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history," the Vatican says

It adds that the pontiff had sent letters to the US and Cuban leaders in recent months and offered their delegations his offices in October to "facilitate" dialogue.

17:26 GMT - POPE EXPRESSES 'GREAT SATISFACTION' OVER CUBA-US THAW

17:18 GMT - CUBAN LEADER SAYS MAIN ISSUE OF US 'BLOCKADE' STILL UNRESOLVED

17:16 GMT - Americans - "Todos somos Americanos," Obama says, noting the short 90 miles that separate Cuba from the US.

17:14 GMT - No es facil - Obama, quotes a Cuban expression in Spanish that change is not easy: "No es facil."

17:11 GMT - Havana - In Cuba, President Raul Castro says three men freed in the prisoner swap are home.

17:06 GMT - Spy swap - Obama says the key to today's changes was not the release of Gross, but of an unnamed "intelligence asset" who has been in a Cuban prison for nearly 20 years.

"One of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba." He is now, "safely on our shores."

17:05 GMT - Return - The president announces the return of Gross, saying he had been wrongly imprisoned. "Today, Alan returned home," Obama says.

17:02 GMT - 'New Chapter' - President Barack Obama begins his announcement from the White House by outlining US policy on Cuba and the embargo.

"No other nation joins us in imposing these sanctions and it has had little effect," he says.

16:52 GMT - 'Rogue regimes' - Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, widely considered a likely Republican presidential candidate, criticises today's moves.

"Today's announcement initiating a dramatic change in US policy toward Cuba is just the latest in a long line of failed attempts by President Obama to appease rogue regimes at all cost.

"Like all Americans, I rejoice at the fact that Alan Gross will be able to return to his family after five years in captivity. Although he is supposedly being released on humanitarian grounds, his inclusion in a swap involving intelligence agents furthers the Cuban narrative about his work in Cuba.

"In contrast, the Cuban Five were spies operating against our nation on American soil. They were indicted and prosecuted in a court of law for the crimes of espionage and were linked to the murder of the humanitarian pilots of Brothers to the Rescue. There should be no equivalence between the two, and Gross should have been released unconditionally."

16:48 GMT - US soil - US Senator Carl Levin, announces that Gross is back on US soil with a statement welcoming him home.

"Seeing Alan Gross walk off that plane with his wife, Judy, was a sight I'll never forget," Levin says. "His unjust imprisonment and his family’s nightmare are finally over. A more regular relationship between the United States and Cuba has been overdue and is now possible. US policy up to now has not worked in US interests, and it has not weakened the Cuban regime.

"Alan's return home also sends a message to Americans held around the world that our nation will not rest until they come home. I support the president's courageous decision."

16:42 GMT - US OFFICIAL CONFIRMS CUBA HAS AGREED TO FREE 53 POLITICAL PRISONERS

16:28 GMT - Failed objective - The White House issues a statement on the historic moves, saying the US's long-standing Cuba policy had "failed."

"It is clear that decades of US isolation of Cuba have failed to accomplish our enduring objective of promoting the emergence of a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba. At times, long-standing US policy towards Cuba has isolated the United States from regional and international partners, constrained our ability to influence outcomes throughout the Western Hemisphere, and impaired the use of the full range of tools available to the United States to promote positive change in Cuba. Though this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, it has had little effect – today, as in 1961, Cuba is governed by the Castros and the Communist party."

"We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result."

16:20 GMT - State Sponsor of Terrorism - The US initiates a review of Cuba's status as a state sponsor of terrorism, promising a report within six months. Cuba has been on the list since 1982.

16:18 GMT - Pope Francis - Pope Francis played key role in Cuba normalization talks, US says

16:14 GMT - US embassy - Washington will re-establish an embassy in Havana "in the coming months" a senior administration official says

16:08 GMT - Phonecall - Obama and Castro spoke by phone on Tuesday, a senior US official says, "to review and finalize the steps that were taken today in terms of the release of the three Cubans and exchange for intelligence assets, and the release of Alan Gross, and the president also made clear his intent to pursue these policy changes but also to continue our advocacy for human rights in Cuba."

16:03 GMT - New ties - US announces it will re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba and ease trade and travel sanctions on the island.

16:02 GMT - US ANNOUNCES "HISTORIC" OPENING WITH CUBA

15:53 GMT - Trade and travel - Ahead of the official announcement, a senior Democratic senator indicates Washington will lift its decades-long commercial and travel restrictions on the island.

"Opening the door with Cuba for trade, travel and the exchange of ideas will create a force for positive change in Cuba that more than 50 years of our current policy of exclusion could not achieve," Senator Dick Durbin, the chamber's number two Democrat, says in a statement.

15:38 GMT - Alan Gross - The 65-year-old Gross is in the air, flying to the Washington area where his family lives.

He had a long career in foreign aid and international development travelled to Cuba on tourist visas four time before his arrest. Accused of being a spy, Gross was tried in 2011 and sentenced to 15 years in jail for committing "acts against the independence and territorial integrity" of Cuba.

His lawyers, as well as the US government, strongly denied he was involved in spying activities on the communist-ruled island. When he was detained, he was allegedly in possession of an electronic chip that prevents the location of satellite telephone calls to be traced.

15:34 GMT - Embargo - During the height of the Cold War, the United States imposed a trade embargo against Cuba and the two countries have not had official diplomatic relations since 1961.

They have maintained "interests sections" in each other's capital, but travel and trade has been severely limited. Recently, several polls have shown that a majority of Americans, even in Florida, favor a change in policy toward Cuba.

15:30 GMT - WELCOME to AFP's Live Report on developments in US-Cuba relations.

Earlier today, Cuba freed Alan Gross, an American contractor jailed there since 2009, as part of a prisoner swap between the two Cold War foes.

Shortly after his release was announced, US President Barack Obama and Cuba's President Raul Castro said they would make simultaneous statements at 1700 GMT on relations between the two countries. The details of those announcements are trickling out and we will offer them here as we confirm them.