OPIOID SERIES:

In historic shift, Obama moves to normalize relations with Cuba

 

President Obama on Wednesday announced that the United States is beginning talks to normalize full diplomatic relations with Cuba.

In what a senior administration official called “the most significant changes to our Cuba policy in more than 50 years,” the White House also said it would re-establish an embassy in Havana in the coming months.

Obama in comments from the White House said 50 years of isolating Cuba had failed, and that it was time for a new policy.

“We can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement,” Obama said.

Republicans quickly denounced the new policies, with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R), whose parents fled Cuba after the Castro takeover, saying Obama's actions would do nothing to spur Democratic change.

“It is a victory for the repressive Cuban government and a serious setback for the repressed Cuban people,” he said. “The White House has conceded everything and gained little.” 

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The move comes after the White House secured the release of both Alan Gross, a U.S. humanitarian worker who has been jailed in Cuba for more than five years, as well as a U.S. intelligence asset who had been imprisoned for nearly 20 years.

The new policies were the result of months of negotiations, culminating in a 45-minute phone call Tuesday between President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro.

According to U.S. officials, Obama authorized the exploratory discussions with Havana in the spring of 2013, and high-level talks between the president’s National Security Council and Cuban officials began in Canada in June of that year.

In those talks, the U.S. stressed that they would only be willing to make the changes with the release of Gross, who was jailed for bringing Internet equipment to the island, as well as the intelligence asset, who helped identify high-level Cuban spies within the U.S. government during the height of the Cold War.

The Cuban government is also releasing 53 political prisoners identified by the United States.

In exchange, the U.S. is returning three Cubans who were convicted of spying on anti-Castro organizations in Miami.

The majority of the negotiations took place in Canada, but they kicked into a higher gear after a personal appeal to both Obama and Castro in a letter from Pope Francis. The pope implored the leaders to free the prisoners, and this fall the Vatican hosted a high-level meeting where the final details were hammered out.

The historic changes to Cuba policy are expansive and significant.

The U.S. will ease travel restrictions to the country, with the administration saying it will permit every type of travel possible under existing legislation.

The administration cannot completely lift the travel ban, which would require an act of Congress, but a senior administartion official said it would be "authorizing as much travel as we possibly can." That includes broadening qualifications under a dozen existing categories, which should create only a minor logistical hurdle for travelers seeking to visit the island nation.

The administration is also authorizing new exports to the country, and quadrupling the limits on American citizens' Cuban imports and exports. Travelers to Cuba can now bring home $400 worth of goods, with a cap of $100 on tobacco and alcohol products.

U.S. banks will be allowed to establish accounts in Cuba, and American visitors will be allowed to use their credit and debit cards while visiting the island.

Telecommunications providers will be allowed to build telecommunications and Internet services in Cuba, and the State Department will immediately launch a review of Cuba’s designation as a "state sponsor of terrorism."

In addition, the administration is lifting the export ban on certain building materials, agricultural equipment and goods for Cuban private sector entrepreneurs.

The White House said the changes “will make it easier for Cuban citizens to have access to certain lower-priced goods to improve their living standards and gain greater economic independence from the state.”

The administration's decision to seek a normalization of relations with Cuba is sure to set off a firestorm of debate within Congress and in the Cuban population in Florida, a key state in any presidential election.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) in a statement said the president’s actions had “vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government.”

“Trading Mr. Gross for three convicted criminals sets an extremely dangerous precedent,” Menendez said. “It invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips. I fear that today’s actions will put at risk the thousands of Americans that work overseas to support civil society, advocate for access to information, provide humanitarian services, and promote democratic reforms.”

The White House said it had briefed multiple members of Congress, including leadership, relevant committee chairs, and Cuban-American lawmakers who had shown an interest in this issue.

An administration official said the White House recognized some lawmakers would “strongly disagree” with the moves, but said that while they “respect the passions” of those individuals, the president ultimately felt opening up relations would do more to help.

The White House noted that a bipartisan group of lawmakers — Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) — had traveled to Cuba to collect Gross, and that a bipartisan contingency was expected to greet him upon his return.

The White House also insisted it would continue to pursue civil society programs within Cuba, just under normalized relations.

“We made clear we're going to continue our support for civil society, for the advancement of our values in Cuba,” an official said.

In an afternoon press conference, Van Hollen described waking up at 3 a.m. to catch a flight to Cuba. He and the other lawmakers arrived in Havana at 8 a.m.

Van Hollen said that the delegation was escorted by "a couple of" Cuban officials to a room holding Alan Gross and two American officials. 
 
"He looks very frail, but his spirits were very high at that moment," Van Hollen said of Gross.
 
Flake, a longtime supporter of easing trade sanctions, defied fellow Republicans by supporting the new policies.
 
"For those who say that this is a concession somehow to the Cuban regime … that is simply wrong," Flake said.
 
He and Leahy both criticized suggestions from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to block funding for a U.S. embassy in Cuba.
 
"I think it would be really counterproductive to block funding for an embassy," Flake said. 
 

— This story was last updated at 2:54 p.m.

Cristina Marcos contributed to this story.