Obama said that while the two countries still have major disagreements, notably over human rights, "where we can advanced shared interests, we will.”
To critics of the renewal of diplomatic ties, he said he did not believe the U.S. should “keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.”
Shortly after the announcement that Gross was being freed after five years in prison, administration officials and other politicians confirmed that steps to ease the embargo would follow.
Wednesday’s diplomatic moves follow more than a year of back-channel talks between U.S. and Cuban officials.
According a senior administration official in a briefing with reporters, Obama initiated explorations about a diplomatic thaw from the U.S. side in the spring of 2013. The first face-to-face meeting of U.S and Cuban officials happened in June 2013 in Canada.
Pope Francis and the Vatican played a role in facilitating the normalization of ties and hosted a meeting in which U.S. and Cuban officials agreed to the terms of the prisoner swap.
“The Holy Father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision … 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,” read a statement issued by the Vatican.
U.S.-Cuba diplomatic ties were formally dissolved in January of 1961.
The thaw in relations is expected to involve official visits to Cuba by high-level U.S. officials and delegations and reciprocal trips by senior Cuban officials.
The policy shift amends existing regulations of the executive branch governing U.S. Cuba policy — specifically in the Commerce and Treasury departments. These changes will allow an expansion of authorized travel categories by Americans to Cuba, increased caps for legal remittances from the U.S. to Cubans, greater commercial ties to the Cuban private sector and additional allowances between mutual exports and imports and authorizations for additional financial and banking transactions.
The reset in relations also includes a review of the U.S. designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Cuban President Raúl Castro also spoke the policy shift today. “The progress made in our exchanges proves that it is possible to find solutions to many problems,” he said in a nationally televised address in Cuba. “As we have reiterated, we must learn the art of coexisting with our differences in a civilized manner.”
Reactions from Capitol Hill were divided.
Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said that “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."
But Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., blasted the diplomatic opening. “Today’s announcement initiating a dramatic change in U.S. policy toward Cuba is just the latest in a long line of failed attempts by President Obama to appease rogue regimes at all cost,” he said. Rubio said the move would put “U.S. national security at risk,” and “represents a terrible setback for the hopes of all oppressed people around the globe.”
Public opinion on the U.S. embargo has shifted in the last two decades — notably among Cuban-Americans, historically a reliably pro-embargo voting bloc whose sentiments have long figured into Washington’s reluctance to consider a diplomatic opening.
According to a poll by the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, only 48 percent of Cuban-Americans favored the embargo in the most recent data release this year. By contrast, 87 percent of those surveyed in 1991, when the poll started, favored the embargo.
Gross was detained in December 2009 while working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). It was his fifth trip to Cuba to work with Jewish communities on setting up Internet access that bypassed local censorship.
Havana considers USAID’s programs illegal attempts by the U.S. to undermine Cuba’s government, and Gross was tried on espionage charges and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Gross thanked Obama, his wife and his lawyers at a press conference in Washington soon after he arrived in the U.S. He expressed his “respect and fondness for the people of Cuba,” adding that “in no way are they responsible for the ordeal to which my family and I were subjected.”
He went on to lend his support for the easing of relations between the two countries. “Five and a half decades of history show us that such belligerence inhibits better judgment. Two wrongs never made a right,” he said.
In exchange for his release, the U.S. announced the release of three members of the so-called Cuban Five, who were sent by former Cuban President Fidel Castro to spy in South Florida.
Obama has sought to ease the historically tense relationship with Cuba since entering office, and diplomatic overtures intensified after Raúl Castro became president. The two notably shook hands and briefly chatted during the funeral of Nelson Mandela in South Africa last year.
The Obama administration previously said that Gross’ imprisonment was a major stumbling block to a wider revamp of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
In a statement coinciding with the fifth anniversary of Gross’ detention earlier in December, Obama said, “The Cuban government’s release of Alan on humanitarian grounds would remove an impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba.”
Al Jazeera sources indicated that the thaw in relations was at least partly brokered by Uruguayan President José Mujica. Obama reportedly asked for Mujica’s help in May to secure Gross’ release, and Mujica facilitated a delivery of letters from Obama to Castro offering talks and a reset of the relationship.