U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro said today they would begin normalizing relations between the two nations, a deal brokered by Pope Francis and aided by the generational shift in Florida’s Cuban-American community.
The action means not simply the opening of a U.S. embassy in Havana but the lifting of some of the restrictions that have limited travel and commerce and kept aficionados from legally bringing Cuban cigars to U.S. soil.
Only 90 miles from the Florida coast, Cuba has long been a fixation -- some might say obsession -- of American imagination and politics. Beloved by Ernest Hemingway, it underwent a communist revolution, was the locus of perhaps the world’s closest brush with nuclear war, and yet has remained the spiritual home of thousands of refugees who fled the Castro regime and who for decades drove U.S.-Cuban policy.
The thaw was wrapped into the release of American aid worker Alan Gross and the exchange of a U.S. spy for three Cuban intelligence agents. Obama and Castro made simultaneous announcements in Washington and Havana to outline the rapprochement.
“Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba,” Obama said at the White House. “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.”
The Cuban leader said “the progress achieved in the exchanges we’ve had shows that it’s possible to find solutions to many problems.”
“We have to learn the art of living together with our differences in a civilized way,” Castro said in Havana.
Cuba’s decision was also rooted in economic reality. Its longtime patrons, Russia and Venezuela, have lost influence and are being squeezed by plummeting oil prices.
The changes follow a rare private intercession by Pope Francis, the Catholic Church’s first Latin-American pontiff, secret meetings between Cuban and American delegations at the Vatican and in Canada, and an extraordinary telephone conversation lasting more than 45 minutes yesterday between Obama and Castro.
The Vatican, in a statement today, said, “The Holy Father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision” to normalize relations, “with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.”
Obama said Cuba was on the agenda when he met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in March. The pope “played a very important role,” Obama said in an interview with ABC News, calling the pontif “the real deal, a remarkable man.”
Obama said that while he’s not sure whether Castro, at age 83, has suddenly changed his views, there is a generational change in the country that holds the prospect for more democracy and freedom.
Raul Castro’s older brother Fidel, a leader in the Cuban revolution and ruled the country until stepping down in 2008, wasn’t part of the talks. Obama said he was “not sure” how much the 88-year-old Castro was aware or approved of the talks.
The White House announced the steps after Cuba released Gross on humanitarian grounds. Following high-level talks between the governments since the spring, the U.S. and Cuba also made a parallel prisoner exchange of three Cuban intelligence agents for a U.S. intelligence asset who has been imprisoned for more than 20 years, according to administration officials who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
Cuba also agreed to release 53 people the U.S. considers political prisoners, some of whom have already been released, the officials said.
The White House plans to move swiftly. The U.S. will issue regulations within weeks and will open an embassy as soon as logistically possible, according to administration officials who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
Obama said he would engage Congress “in an honest and serious debate” about changing legislation to fully end the U.S. embargo of Cuba. Some Cuban-American lawmakers vowed to block the president’s plans.
Vow to block
“This Congress is not going to lift the embargo,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, whose parents left Cuba in 1956, said at a news conference in Washington today. “I intend to use every tool at our disposal in the majority to unravel as many of these changes as possible.”
New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, usually an administration ally, criticized Obama’s action, saying it “invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips” and will set back efforts to bring democracy to Cuba.
South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, who is set to become chairman in January of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on state and foreign operations, said he would try to block funding to open an embassy in Havana.
Punishing Cuba has fallen out of favor with the U.S. public. In every Gallup Poll from 1999 to 2009, the last time the question was asked, a majority of Americans favored normal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
The administration will make it easier for people to go there under any of 12 exceptions in the current law, including for family visits, education, research, journalism, professional meetings, religious activity, athletic competitions, information transmission and export transactions, officials said. Purely touristic travel will still be against the law unless Congress acts to lift the embargo
Those who do get to Cuba will be able to use credit and debit cards in Cuba and Americans will be able to legally bring home up to $100 in previously illegal Cuban cigars.
U.S. companies will be permitted to export to Cuba telecommunications equipment, agricultural commodities, construction supplies and materials for small businesses. U.S. financial institutions will be allowed to open accounts with Cuban banks.
Limits on Cuban-Americans’ remittances to relatives in their homeland will jump to $8,000 from $2,000 annually. U.S. companies will be permitted to export an expansive list of goods including building materials and allowed to build telecommunications infrastructure on the island.
Exports will mainly be permitted to Cuba’s emerging private sector, including residential goods and equipment for small businesses and agriculture, an official said.
The president also ordered the State Department to review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Cuba has been listed as a terrorism sponsor since 1982, the official said.
Cuba also agreed to allow greater Internet access for its citizens and easier telecommunications with the United States.
The U.S. and Cuba will begin a series of high-level visits between the governments as they negotiate normalization of relations with a visit to Havana in January by an assistant secretary of state for talks on migration policy.
Obama wouldn’t rule out making a visit to Cuba sometime in the future. “I don’t have any current plans to visit Cuba,” he said in the ABC interview. “Let’s see how things evolve.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said presidents routinely stop in countries with which the U.S. has “fundamental” disagreements, citing recent trips by Obama to China and Myanmar.
The pope’s role in the talks included sending a letter to Castro and Obama, urging them to resolve the dispute over Gross and to pursue closer relations. An official said the request from the Pope was rare and came shortly after a meeting Obama had with Francis at the Vatican earlier this year.
The Vatican hosted delegations from the two countries for talks, though most of the meetings were held in Canada, an administration official said.
Return to U.S.
Gross, a 65-year-old American, left Cuba on a U.S. government plane this morning and landed at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington shortly before Obama spoke. The three Cuban agents were returned to their country this morning, an administration official said.
Gross was arrested by Cuban officials while working to expand Internet access for Havana’s Jewish community. He was accused of undermining the Cuban state and in December 2009 was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The U.S. isolation of Cuba has endured in part because of the influence of the Cuban-American exile community in Florida, a crucial swing state in national elections. But support for the embargo has waned among younger Cuban-Americans, even as opposition to the Castro regime remains.
Trade with Cuba has been severely restricted for half a century due to a Cold War freeze. The U.S. hasn’t had normal diplomatic relations with Cuba since 1961. The two countries had no diplomatic relations until 1977. Since then, the U.S. has been represented by an interests section within the Switzerland’s embassy to Cuba.
Bay of Pigs
Under President John F. Kennedy, the Central Intelligence Agency backed a failed armed invasion of the island at the Bay of Pigs, along with repeated attempts to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro, Raul’s older brother.
The U.S. has maintained an embargo on most trade with the island, a policy that periodically has come under pressure from American business interests that see potential profit there. The World Bank, citing 2011 data, pegs the island’s gross domestic product at more than $68 billion -- about what the U.S. produced that year in a day and a half, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Under Raul Castro, who took over from Fidel Castro as acting president in 2006 and succeeded him two years later, the Marxist nation has taken tentative steps away from central planning. In July, Cuba lowered its economic growth forecast for this year to 1.4 percent.
Earlier this week, Moody’s said the economy on the island about 90 miles off the coast of Florida was slowing, citing “decreased reform momentum.”