In what President Obama is calling "one of the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years," the White House announced Wednesday that it would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba.
"Neither the American nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that's rooted in events that took place before most of us were born," said the president, who was born in 1961, the same year that the U.S. imposed a strict trade embargo on Cuba. Speaking from the White House, Obama called the long-standing American stance toward Cuba an "outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests."
Obama said that the current U.S. policy in Cuba is unproductive. "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."
A great deal is expected to change. Secretary of State John Kerry will review Cuba's status on his department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, where it has been since 1982. The U.S. will establish an embassy in the Cuban capital of Havana, allow the use of U.S. credit and debit cards in Cuba, and lift trade restrictions on things such as building materials and agricultural equipment. Americans won't be able to travel to Cuba as tourists, but they can visit family members, attend research meetings and athletic competitions, and report news there. And, yes, U.S. travelers can bring back some cigars and booze.
Obama spoke of the Cuban people in his speech. "We should not allow U.S. sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens that we seek to help," he said. "To the Cuban people, America extends a hand of friendship."
Obama then addressed them directly: "Today, I'm 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." And he threw in some Spanish, too. "Cubans have a saying about daily life: 'No es fácil.' It's not easy," he said, then later, "Todos somos Americanos," which translates to "We are all Americans."
The president spoke Wednesday afternoon after news broke that American contractor Alan Gross had been released from a Cuban prison, where he has been since 2009, and was on his way back to the U.S. Gross is expected to speak to the press this afternoon. Cuba President Raul Castro delivered remarks to his public at about the same time.
Cuba will also release an U.S. intelligence "asset" who has been imprisoned for almost 20 years, according to senior administration officials. Sources tell the news organization that the individual, who is Cuban, was responsible for several significant counterintelligence prosecutions sought by the U.S. The person will be released in exchange for three Cuban spies convicted in the U.S. of conspiracy and other charges in 2001. The three men were part of the Cuban Five, a group of spies sent to Florida by then-President Fidel Castro.
Several lawmakers were quick to bash Obama for the change in Cuba policy. Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that although Gross's release was "a moment of profound relief," the president has "vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government" and put Americans at risk. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., whose parents immigrated from Cuba in 1956, called the president "the worst negotiator we've had as president since at least Jimmy Carter, and maybe in the modern history of this country" in an appearance on Fox News.
The change in Cuba policy is no doubt a historic move, and one that could determine the course of the last two years of the Obama administration. But the shift, the president said, will take time. "Don't expect the changes I'm announcing today to bring about a transformation of Cuban society overnight," he said.
This story has been updated with more information.