After 50 years of isolation, the United States and Cuba agreed to resume formal diplomatic relations, with an American embassy opening soon in Havana. The surprise agreement was announced by the presidents of both countries on Wednesday afternoon.
The deal was confirmed by a 90-minute phone call between the two presidents after 18 months of secret negotiations facilitated by Canada and encouraged by Pope Francis.
“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” Obama stated in his call for a new approach to dealing with the Cuban government.
Terms of the agreement include a prisoner exchange, with the United States returning three Cuban spies imprisoned since 2001, and Cuba returning a U.S. spy imprisoned for nearly 20 years. At the same time, U.S. government contractor Alan P. Gross has been released after five years in Cuban prison in what is being labelled as a separate, humanitarian gesture. Cuba has also agreed to release 53 imprisoned Cuban nationals whom the U.S. government identifies as political prisoners. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is said to be reviewing the U.S. policy of labeling Cuba as a state-sponsor of terrorism, a designation given in 1982.
The U.S. government is relaxing restrictions on remittances to Cuba as well as travel and banking regulations. The maximum amount for remittances to Cuba has been raised from US$500 every three months to US$2,000 and no longer require a government licensed intermediary. Also, U.S. debit and credit cards will be allowed to be used in Cuba. Americans traveling to Cuba under the 12 categories of permitted travel will face less restrictions and be allowed to return with US$400 worth of goods, up from the previous US$100, including alcohol and tobacco products.
Tourism to Cuba, however, remains prohibited under the U.S.-imposed embargo. While the U.S. president does have the authority to reopen diplomatic relations with Cuba as Obama has done, removing the Cuban embargo would require an act of congress.
With the upcoming congress dominated by Republicans in both houses, it is unlikely that the embargo will be lifted anytime soon. The Republican Party has long been opposed to lifting the embargo with communist Cuba under the Castro regime.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, son of Cuban immigrants, opposed the president’s action, saying, “All this is going to do is give the Castro regime, which controls every aspect of Cuban life, the opportunity to manipulate these changes to stay in power.”
While Obama made his announcement, Cuban President Raul Castro appeared on Cuban television, commending Obama’s decision. The Cuban president reminded listeners that the issue of the embargo has yet to be resolved, saying “The economic, commercial, and financial blockade, which causes enormous human and economic damages to our country, must cease.”