“We are making these changes because it’s the right thing to do,” said President Barack Obama, announcing U.S. plans to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba. “We are giving you our hand in friendship. We cannot erase history between us, but you should live in dignity and self-determination.”
He said the U.S. would, among other changes, reopen its embassy in Havana and ease restrictions on travel, banking relationships and financial remittances — all dramatic changes in a policy that hadn’t moved in more than 50 years and, in the president’s view, has done nothing to change the communist country for the better.
The news was met with swift condemnation from some U.S. lawmakers. “Time and time again, the Cuban government has manipulated ever single concession this administration has made to their advantage to anticipate. It’s based on … the lie and the illusion that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom,” said Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Speaker of the House John Boehner issued a statement reading, “Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom — and not one second sooner.”
Much of what Obama announced today he can accomplish through executive order, but lifting the economic embargo of Cuba — officially in place since 1962 — will take an act of Congress. “We are calling on Cuba to unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans by ending unnecessary restrictions on their political, social and economic activities. In that spirit, we should not allow U.S. sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens we seek to help,” he said.
For its part, Cuba has committed to opening up the Internet to its people and look to establishing relationships with the Red Cross and the United Nations. In Havana, President Raúl Castro said, “In recognizing that we have profound differences in the areas of national sovereignty, democracy, human rights and foreign policy, I reaffirm our willingness to discuss all of these matters.”
The announcement comes hours after the release of U.S. contractor Alan Gross from a Cuban prison on humanitarian ground. Gross, whose health has been deteriorating, had been detained since 2009. “I am incredibly blessed finally to have the freedoms to resume a positive life,” he said.
Cuba released another prisoner, identified only as someone from the U.S. intelligence community who had been in Cuban custody for 20 years.
Though it was not officially a prisoner swap, three Cuban prisoners in the U.S. were freed the same morning. They were among the so-called Cuban Five, who were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage in 2001. The other two men were returned to Cuba in 2013 and 2014. In Cuba, the five are national heroes.
What does the future hold for U.S.-Cuban relations?
How will this play out politically in Washington?
How will restored relations affect the lives of Cubans?
We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story.