After 50 Years, The U.S. And Cuba Restore Relations

After 18 months of secret talks, the United States is set to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century. The news comes after reports of the release of an American contractor held in prison for five years, American officials said Wednesday.

The New York Times reports President Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba agreed in a telephone call on Tuesday to put aside years of national differences to finally settle on common ground; it was the first substantive presidential-level discussion between the U.S. and Cuba since 1961. The two leaders were hosted largely by Canada and encouraged by Pope Francis, who arranged a final meeting between both at the Vatican.

“Today, the United States is taking historic steps to chart a new course in our relations with Cuba and to further engage and empower the Cuban people,” the White House said in a written statement.

Alan Gross, the contractor who was released, traveled on an American government plane to the United States on late Wednesday morning, while the United States sent back three Cuban spies who had been in an American prison since 2001. U.S. officials said the Cuban spies were swapped for an American intelligence agent who had been in a prison on the island for nearly 20 years. They added that Gross was not technically part of the exchange, and was released separately on “humanitarian grounds.”

The U.S. is expected to reopen an embassy in the capital of Havana and carry out high-level exchanges and visits between the governments. The U.S. is also easing travel restrictions to the island across all 12 categories, including for family visits, official U.S. government business, and educational activities. Tourist travel, however, will remain prohibited.

“With the changes I am announcing today, it will be easier for Americans to travel to Cuba,” President Obama said on Wednesday during a national press conference. “These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked.”

Seemingly, the long-standing ban on importing Cuban cigars is over (well, sort of): Licensed American travelers to Cuba will now be able to return to the U.S. with $400 in Cuban goods, including tobacco and alcohol products worth less than $100 combined.

In addition, President Obama has increased the amount of money Americans can send to Cubans every three months from its current limit of $500 to $2,000.

“This is being done because we believe the policy of the past has not worked and we believe the best way to bring democracy and prosperity to Cuba is through a different kind of policy,” an unidentified senior administration official told reporters on a conference call on Wednesday.

Yet, some American officials are not as moved by the news.

“This is going to do absolutely nothing to further human rights and democracy in Cuba,” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida said. “But it potentially goes a long way in providing the economic lift that the Castro regime needs to become permanent fixtures in Cuba for generations to come.”

The White House’s official assured, however, that the shift in policy would not diminish the United State’s focus on human rights in Cuba.

“Our emphasis on human rights will be just as strong and we believe more effective under this policy,” the unidentified official added. “We will engage directly with the Cuban government on human rights.”