Cuba Releases American Prisoner, Beginning Major Thaw in U.S. Relations

Alan Gross is on his way back to the U.S., and a big announcement is soon to come from the president.

U.S.-Cuba relations, tense for half a century, are about to fundamentally change.

Alan Gross, the American contractor who has been imprisoned in Cuba since 2009, will be released to the United States by the Cuban government, the White House announced Wednesday. The so-called "humanitarian release" will coincide with an exchange of three Cubans convicted of espionage in Miami for one unnamed U.S. intelligence asset.

The announcement of Gross' release comes with much broader-reaching news: the U.S. is preparing a shift in its relationship with Cuba and is set to begin talks to normalize diplomatic relations. President Obama spoke on Gross' release and the change in the diplomatic relationship at noon. Cuban President Raul Castro spoke at the same time separately.

The U.S., which has had a tight trade embargo on Cuba since 1961, is now set to announce a loosening of economic and travel restrictions. The Obama administration is also looking to set up an embassy in the Cuban capital of Havana "in the coming months," the White House says.

Restrictions on certain kinds of travel will be greatly loosened, but limitations will not be lifted altogether. Any travel that falls into 12 approved categories can go ahead fairly easily, according to a senior administration official. Those categories include family visits, official government business, and trips for journalistic, educational and research purposes. The exemptions also include humanitarian travel, among a few other categories.

Tourism—that is, any visit that does not fall into the 12 approved categories—remains prohibited. "We're authorizing as much travel as we possibly can" within the limits of a Congressional travel ban, the senior official said. The wider travel ban can only be lifted by Congress.

And yes: the loosening includes an opening on Cuban cigars. Per the White House: "Licensed U.S. travelers to Cuba will be authorized to import $400 worth of goods from Cuba, of which no more than $100 can consist of tobacco products and alcohol combined."

In addition to releasing Alan Gross, a senior administration official says Cuba is releasing a "U.S. intelligence asset" who has been imprisoned in Cuba for almost 20 years. This person, a Cuban national, was "responsible for some of the most important intelligence and counterintelligence" operations in Cuba in recent years, the official said, having provided information that led to the prosecution of high-level administration officials like Ana Montes and Kendall Myers on charges of spying for Cuba, and to the arrest of the Cuban Five. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called the man "probably the most highly valued intelligence asset on Cuban soil."

Cuba is also releasing 53 of its own prisoners, officials say. The U.S. flagged these inmates to the Cuban government as political prisoners, and some have already been released.

To really get a sense of how big of a shift this is, remember it was only one year ago that Obama just shaking hands with Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela's funeral was big news.

Asked if Obama would consider traveling to Havana, Earnest did not rule out the possibility of a presidential visit, saying only that the U.S. routinely deals with countries that have troublesome human-rights records. "We engage those countries and we engage the leadership of those countries," Earnest said.

Not everyone is excited about the developments. Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a scathing statement Wednesday morning, saying that the move puts thousands of Americans at risk. While he said that Gross' release "is a moment of profound relief," Menendez said "President Obama's actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government." Menendez said that exchanging Gross for "three convicted criminals sets an extremely dangerous precedent. It invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips."

Sen. Bob Corker, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a terse statement that neither supported nor opposed the policy changes the president announced. "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 the statement. "We will be closely examining the implications of these major policy changes in the next Congress."

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., joined in the criticism. "At a minimum Barack Obama is the worst negotiator we've had as president since at least Jimmy Carter, and maybe in the modern history of this country," he said on Fox News Wednesday. "The issue that I care about in Cuba is democracy," Rubio later said on CNN. "Nothing that is happening here will further that cause." The senator, and possible 2016 presidential contender, called the move a "life-line" for the Castro regime.

Gross, who was arrested while in Cuba as part of a USAID telecommunications program, was convicted of espionage by a Cuban court in 2011 and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Gross' wife and members of Congress, including long-time advocates for his release Sens. Patrick Leahy and Jeff Flake and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, are on board his flight back to the United States.

Although negotiations had been brewing for some time, the first face-to-face meeting between Cuban and American officials took place in Canada in June 2013. Many of the ensuing meetings took place in Canada, but senior administration officials said that the Vatican played an important role in bringing the sides together as well. When Obama visited the Vatican in March, he and Pope Francis discussed the issue, and the Pope sent Obama and Castro personal letters to encourage them to press forward with negotiations.

The Vatican released a statement later Wednesday congratulating the governments of the U.S. and Cuba.

One year ago, on the fourth anniversary of his imprisonment, Gross wrote an open letter to Obama asking him to intervene.

"For four years," he wrote, "I have been confined 23 hours a day to a small cell with two fellow inmates." Gross continued, saying that "I am completely isolated from the outside world. I have lost almost everything in the last four years, most of all time with my family "“ my wife, Judy, and my daughters, Shira and Nina."

And his appeal to Obama carried that sense of isolation and desperation. "As I reflect on these last four years, I find myself asking the same question "“ why? Why am I still here? With the utmost respect, Mr. President, I fear that my government "“ the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare "“ has abandoned me."

After years in prison, Gross has recently been in failing physical and mental health. He began a nine-day hunger strike in April "to object to mistruths, deceptions, and inaction by both governments, not only regarding their shared responsibility for my arbitrary detention, but also because of the lack of any reasonable or valid effort to resolve this shameful ordeal," he said in statement at that time. In June, following the death of his mother, a lawyer for Gross said that he planned to end his life "in an effort to end his agony." This past August, Gross told his lawyer that "life in prison is not a life worth living" and suggested that he would not live to see another birthday.

Now, though, that situation seems to have changed.

And just as today isn't only about Gross' release, the change in diplomatic relations that the U.S. is pursuing isn't just about Cuba. Officials said the warming of U.S.-Cuba relations will have a positive effect on the U.S.'s relations in the entire region. The friction between the countries has been "a huge burden if not an albatross for our relations in the hemisphere," one official said. The thaw will open doors for the U.S. in the whole region, he said. "Frankly, this is not just about Cuba; this is about Latin America broadly."

This story is breaking and will be updated.

Emma Roller contributed to this article