Gross, facing the camera in a blue shirt, flew back from Cuba on a US government plane
Alan Gross, facing the camera in a blue shirt, flew back from Cuba on a US government plane

The White House Office of the Press Secretary said the United States is taking historic steps to chart a new course in their relations with Cuba and to further engage and empower the Cuban people.  President Barack Obama hailed it as a “new chapter” in US relations with Cuba, announcing moves to normalize diplomatic and economic ties.

Obama said the US’ current approach was “outdated” and the changes were the “most significant” in US policy towards Cuba in 50 years.

Cuban President Raul Castro said he welcomed the shift in a TV address.

The move includes the release of US contractor Alan Gross and three Cubans held in the US.

Wednesday’s announcement follows more than a year of secret talks in Canada and at the Vatican, directly involving the Pope.

The White House statement said:

“It is clear that decades of U.S. isolation of Cuba have failed to accomplish our enduring objective of promoting the emergence of a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba.  At times, longstanding U.S. policy towards Cuba has isolated the United States from regional and international partners, constrained our ability to influence outcomes throughout the Western Hemisphere, and impaired the use of the full range of tools available to the United States to promote positive change in Cuba.  Though this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, it has had little effect – today, as in 1961, Cuba is governed by the Castros and the Communist party.

“We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.  It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse.  We know from hard-learned experience that it is better to encourage and support reform than to impose policies that will render a country a failed state. With our actions today, 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.”

The US is looking to open an embassy in Havana in the coming months, Obama said.

Barack Obama and Raul Castro met a year ago at Nelson Mandela's funeral
Barack Obama and Raul Castro met a year ago at Nelson Mandela’s funeral

The plans set out in a White House statement also include:

  • Reviewing the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism
  • Easing a travel ban for US citizens
  • Easing financial restrictions
  • Increasing telecommunications links
  • Efforts to lift the 54-year-old trade embargo
  • Castro said the changes were something Cuba had been pressing for a long time.

“Ever since my election… I have reiterated on many occasions our preparedness to hold a respectful dialogue with the government of the United States based on sovereign equality,” he said.

President Castro urged Washington to lift a trade and economic embargo imposed on the communist-run island – a move that can only be made by Congress.

Obama Speech on Cuba and Restoring Diplomatic Relations [FULL] | The New York Times

Republican Senator Marco Rubio has criticized the new US policy, saying it would do nothing to address the issues of Cuba’s political system and human rights record.

“The detention of Alan Gross had for years been a major hurdle on the path to closer ties between Cuba and the US. His release allows the US to ‘cut loose the anchor of the past’, as the Obama administration put it,” says Vanessa Buschschluter, Latin America editor, BBC News online.

Addressing Cuba’s participation in the 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama, President Obama said he will participate in the Summit of the Americas in Panama.