Moves to close the rifts with Cuba would mark a significant moment in Western Hemisphere politics. (Alejandro Ernesto/EPA)
By Karen DeYoung December 17 at 12:08 PM
President Obama moved Wednesday to normalize relations with Cuba, tearing down the last remaining pillar of the Cold War after after more than 60 years.
Under measures announced by the administration, the United States plans to re-open its embassy in Havana and significantly ease restrictions on travel and commerce within the next several weeks and months.
The result of more than a year and a half of secret negotiations with the Cuban government of President Raul Castro, the changes followed Cuba’s agreement to release Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor imprisoned for five years, and to exchange an unnamed U.S. intelligence asset, held for two decades, for three Cuban nationals convicted of spying in this country in 2001.
Gross, a Maryland resident, left Cuba aboard a U.S. military aircraft Wednesday morning, accompanied by his wife and several members of Congress, and arrived at Joint Base Andrews. The Cubans have landed in Havana.
[Read our live blog: Restoring U.S.-Cuba ties]
American Alan Gross poses for a photo during a visit by Rabbi Elie Abadie and U.S. lawyer James L. Berenthal at Finlay military hospital. (James L. Berenthal/AP)
Although Obama has the power to establish diplomatic relations, the move was the latest in a series of steps he has taken to use executive powers to circumvent legislative
While those laws remain standing, the administration made clear that the measures announced Wednesday are designed to undermine them as much as possible.
“We are confident in our ability to take these steps,” said a senior administration officials who briefed reporters prior to a statement Obama will make at noon.
Normalization fulfills a goal set by the President early in his administration, which officials only saw as possible during his last two years in office, following November’s midterm elections.
“When we came into office we were committed to changing a policy that we felt had failed...for the last several decades,” the official said.
“This is a better way, in our view, of advancing our interests and our values,” the official said. “Engagement is a better tool than isolation.”
The final elements of the deal were cemented in a telephone conversation Tuesday between Obama and Castro--the first direct communication between a U.S. and Cuban leader since relations were severed in January 1961.
Officials said the call followed secret channel talks begun in June last year between White House and Cuban officials in a series of meetings held in Canada. The final planning meeting was held in November at the Vatican; where officials said Pope Francis had been instrumental in facilitating agreement.
The issue of Cuban relations, and particularly Gross’s imprisonment, was discussed during Obama’s meeting with the Pope in March. Francis subsequently made a personal appeal to both Obama and Castro in letters sent early this summer.
The Vatican “has been deeply involved in this whole negotiation with the prisoners and played a key role,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who said he would be among a number of lawmakers meeting Gross on arrival at Andrews.
Administration officials said that they did not expect a strongly negative public reaction to the moves, citing changes in the political sentiments of a new generation of Cuban Americans. Virtually all Latin American governments, including close U.S. allies, have long denounced the embargo and called for normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba.
But Cuban-American lawmakers were quick to denounce the move. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said Obama’s actions “will invite further belligerence toward Cuba’s opposition movement and the hardening of the government’s dictatorial hold on its people.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called the announcement “just the latest in a long line of failed attempts by President obama to appease rogue regimes at all cost.”
Adam Goldman and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.