The US is to open talks with Cuba about establishing full diplomatic relations and reopening an embassy in Havana, potentially bringing to an end more than five decades of hostility and one of the last vestiges of the Cold War.
The dramatic move to thaw relations began with a prisoner swap on Wednesday, including three Cuban agents held in US jails and Alan Gross, an American development worker who has been in a Cuban prison for five years on spying charges. The US said an unnamed Cuban man who had provided “critical” intelligence to the US had also been released from a Cuban jail after almost 20 years.
The rapprochement between the US and Cuba, which included a telephone call between President Barack Obama and Raúl Castro on Tuesday evening, was brokered with the help of Canada and Pope Francis.
The push to ease ties with Cuba could bring to an end more than 50 years of US economic sanctions which were put in place just after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 in a bid to isolate the island and contain its ambitions to export communism.
The move also represents a formal admission by the Obama administration that the longstanding US policy towards Cuba has failed in its objective of encouraging democracy and greater human rights protections in the country
“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach,” Mr Obama said in a televised address. “It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba towards collapse,” he said. “Let us leave behind the legacy of both colonisation and communism, the tyranny of drug cartels, dictators and sham elections.”
US officials said that the administration was relaxing some restrictions on commerce with Cuba, although bigger steps to unwind the embargo would require the approval of Congress.
The steps include permitting telecom and internet connections between the two countries, increasing the amount of remittances that Cuban American families can send to the island and allowing more travel by Americans to Cuba. Travellers will be permitted to bring back $100 in tobacco and alcohol — including Cuban cigars — for personal use.
Pope Francis congratulated both sides on the “historic decision”. In recent months, the Pope had written to the leaders of both countries and invited them to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including those concerning certain prisoners, the Vatican said.
“The Holy See will continue to assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the wellbeing of their respective citizens,” the Vatican said.
The US embargo on Cuba was an anachronism given the sorts of relations Washington has developed over the past four decades with Communist governments in China and Vietnam, Mr Obama said. Diplomatic relations with Cuba were severed in 1961 after the rise of Fidel Castro.
The decision represents, in part, a political gamble by Mr Obama to face down the likely opposition from some Cuban Americans.
Marco Rubio, the Florida senator who is the son of Cuban immigrants, immediately denounced the initiative and said he would work to block efforts at opening trade and commerce with Cuba.
“This [is a] dangerous and desperate attempt by the President to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people’s expense,” said Mr Rubio, who will next year have a senior role on the Senate foreign relations committee. “This is the latest in a long line of failed attempts by President Obama to appease rogue regimes at all cost.”
Speaking on Cuban television President Raúl Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, said Cuba and the US had been able to “advance the solutions of some themes of interest”. But, he added, this did not mean the “principal issue had been resolved.”
The talks offer the chance of potentially a major foreign policy breakthrough for Mr Obama after a year of intense criticism of his effectiveness on the international stage. They will also allow him to avoid a potentially difficult situation in April when he and Mr Castro are to attend a major Latin American summit in Panama.
“This shift is not just about Cuba but will help our policy initiatives around the hemisphere,” said a senior administration official. The US embargo of Cuba is widely criticised by governments throughout the rest of the region.
“Nearly 55 years of ineffective Cuba sanctions policy has come to an end,” said Peter Schechter, director of the Latin America centre at the Atlantic Council. “The Cuba embargo placed a boulder-sized pebble in the shoe of US-Latin American relations. It is a relief to have it removed.”
As well as the release of Mr Gross, who arrived on American soil on Wednesday morning in a plane that contained several senators and members of Congress, Cuba also released a man US officials described as an “important intelligence asset” who had been in jail for nearly 20 years. The Cuban government also released 53 prisoners whose cases had been brought up by the administration, US officials said.