President Barack Obama announced on Wednesday that the United States will start the process of normalizing relations with Cuba under a series of changes to U.S. policy toward the communist country.
“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Obama said.
Obama has instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to immediately begin discussions with Cuba to re-establish diplomatic relations, which have been severed since 1961. The U.S. will also re-establish an embassy in Havana, Obama announced.
“Neither the Cuban, nor the American people are well-served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born,” Obama said in his statement.
“Consider that for more than 35 years, we’ve had relations with China, a far larger country also governed by a Communist party. Nearly two decades ago, we re-established relations with Vietnam, where we fought a war that claimed more Americans than any Cold War confrontation.”
The move comes after Cuba released American USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned since 2009 after trying to deliver communications equipment to religious groups in Cuba. As part of the move, the U.S. also released three Cuban agents who had been imprisoned for more than 15 years.
Obama thanked Pope Francis for urging the release of prisoners on both sides. In what was a surprise announcement after the Gross news came earlier in the day, Obama also said that a top U.S. spy has been released from Cuban prison and is now on U.S. soil, along with Gross.
“Separately, in exchange for the three Cuban agents, Cuba today released one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba and who has been in prison for nearly two decades,” Obama said. “This man, whose sacrifice has been known to only a few, provided America with the information that allowed us to arrest the network of Cuban agents that included the men transferred to Cuba today, as well as other spies in the United States.”
Obama also announced that the State Department would be reviewing Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism and that the United States will also be taking steps to “increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba.”
The policy changes also included moves aimed at making travel easier for Americans and allowing American credit and debit cards to be used on the island, as well as increasing the amount of money that can be sent to Cuba.
U.S. financial institutions will be allowed to open accounts at Cuban institutions, and it will be easier for U.S. exporters to sell goods in Cuba, Obama said.
The president acknowledged that he did not have the power on his own to completely undo the U.S. embargo against Cuba, which has been codified in law since 1996 and would require congressional action to dismantle.
“As these changes unfold, I look forward to engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo,” he said.
The president spoke with Cuban leader Raul Castro on Tuesday, and the New York Times reported that the country would also be releasing 53 political prisoners. Obama also said that Cuba would be taking steps to “provide more access to the Internet for its citizens,” though he did not specify what those steps were. He also acknowledged that serious human rights problems remain in the country.
“I’m under no illusion about the continued barriers to freedom that remain for ordinary Cubans. The United States believes that no Cuban should face harassment, or arrests, or beatings simply because they’re exercising a universal right to have their voices heard,” Obama said.
“I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result. Moreover, it does not serve American interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba towards collapse.”