Obama to announce major Cuba policy overhaul; prisoners swapped
BY DANIEL TROTTA AND MATT SPETALNICK
HAVANA/WASHINGTON Wed Dec 17, 2014 10:23am EST
(Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama was set to announce a shift in
policy toward Cuba on Wednesday and the Associated Press reported the
changes would include the opening of an embassy in Cuba and the start of
talks to normalize relations.
The shift in policy, which could be one of the biggest changes in
decades of animosity between communist-ruled Cuba and the United States,
was heralded by Cuba's release of American aid worker Alan Gross after
five years in prison in a reported prisoner exchange with Havana.
Obama was due to make a statement at noon (5:00 p.m. GMT) on Cuba, the
White House said, and a U.S. official said Obama would announce a shift
in Cuba policy. Cuban President Raul Castro was also set to make a
statement at that time.
Citing U.S. officials, the AP said Washington planned to open an embassy
in Cuba as part of its plan to launch talks and normalize relations.
A senior congressional aide said Obama would ease the embargo and travel
restrictions that prevent most Americans from visiting the island.
The two countries have been ideological foes since soon after the 1959
revolution that brought Raul Castro's older brother, Fidel Castro, to
power. Washington and Havana have no diplomatic relations and the United
States has maintained a trade embargo on Cuba for more than 50 years.
Washington's policy has survived the end of the Cold War as the United
States pushes for democratic reform in Cuba.
The U.S. official said Gross was released on humanitarian grounds and
left Cuba on a U.S. government plane bound for the United States. CNN
reported a prisoner exchange that also included Cuba's release of a U.S.
intelligence source and the U.S. release of three Cuban intelligence agents.
Cuba arrested Gross, now 65, on Dec. 3, 2009, and later sentenced him to
15 years in prison for importing banned technology and trying to
establish clandestine Internet service for Cuban Jews. Gross had been
working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International
Whatever he announces in terms of a wider policy shift, Obama may well
face criticism in Washington and within the Cuban exile community in
Miami for freeing the Cuban intelligence agents after 16 years in
prison. Their freedom will be hailed as a resounding victory at home for
The payoff for Obama was the release of Gross, whose lawyer and family
have described him as mentally vanquished, gaunt, hobbling and missing
U.S. officials had long cited Cuba’s refusal to free Gross as one of the
biggest impediments to improved relations and had held out the
possibility that his release could open the door to such steps.
Gross's case raised alarm about USAID's practice of hiring private
citizens to carry out secretive assignments in hostile places. Cuba
considers USAID another instrument of continual U.S. harassment dating
back to Cuba's 1959 revolution. Fidel Castro retired in 2008, handing
power to his brother.
Raul Castro has undertaken a series of economic reforms, but has
maintained a one-party political system. The United States has said it
wants to promote democracy in Cuba, where political opponents are
repressed and the state controls the media.
Steps by Obama toward normalizing relations with Cuba could stir
opposition from some sectors of the large community of Cuban exiles, who
have traditionally been politically well connected and well financed.
(Writing by Frances Kerry; Editing by Howard Goller)
Source: Obama to announce major Cuba policy overhaul; prisoners swapped
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