September 23, 2020

Obama announces U.S. and Cuba will resume relations

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18GROSS-articleLargeBy Peter Bakerdec. From The New York Times

The president outlined the steps the would take to “end an outdated approach” and begin to normalize relations with .

WASHINGTON — The United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century after the release of an American contractor held in prison for five years, announced on Wednesday.

In a deal negotiated during 18 months of secret talks hosted largely by Canada and encouraged by Pope Francis, who hosted a final meeting at the Vatican, Mr. Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba agreed in a telephone call to put aside decades of hostility to find a new relationship between the United States and the island nation just 90 miles off the American coast.

“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Mr. Obama said in a nationally televised statement from the White House. The deal will “begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas” and move beyond a “rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

The surprise announcement represented a dramatic turning point in more than five decades of hostility born in the depths of the Cold War and yet frozen in time long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Once a geopolitical flash point, the Cuba-America relationship has been a thorn in the side of multiple presidents and even now generated fierce criticism from those who equated a diplomatic thaw to appeasement of the hemisphere’s leading dictatorship.

Mr. Obama has long expressed hope of transforming relations with the island nation, an aspiration that remained untenable as long as Cuba held Alan P. Gross, the American government contractor arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison. In agreeing to free him, Cuba cleared the way for Mr. Obama to take a political risk with the last national election of his presidency behind him.

Mr. Gross traveled on an American government plane back to the United States late Wednesday morning, and the United States sent back three Cuban spies who had been in an American prison since 2001. American officials said the Cuban spies were swapped for a United States intelligence agent who had been in a Cuban prison for nearly 20 years, and said Mr. Gross was not technically part of the swap, but was released separately on “humanitarian grounds.”

In addition, the United States will ease restrictions on remittances, travel and banking relations, and Cuba will release 53 Cuban prisoners identified as political prisoners by the United States government. Although the decades-old American embargo on Cuba will remain in place for now, the president called for an “honest and serious debate about lifting” it, which would require an act of Congress.

“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s time for a new approach.”

Addressing critics of his new approach, he said he shares their commitment to freedom. “The question is how we uphold that commitment,” he said. “I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.”

Mr. Castro spoke simultaneously on Cuban television, taking to the airwaves with no introduction and announcing that he had spoken by telephone with Mr. Obama.

“We have been able to make headway in the solution of some topics of mutual interest for both nations,” he announced, emphasizing the release of the three Cubans. “President Obama’s decision deserves the respect and acknowledgment of our people.”

Only afterward did he mention the reopening of diplomatic relations. “This in no way means that the heart of the matter has been resolved,” he said. “The economic, commercial and financial blockade, which causes enormous human and economic damages to our country, must cease.” But, he added, “The progress made in our exchanges proves that it is possible to find solutions to many problems.”

Mr. Castro acknowledged that Mr. Obama was easing the blockade through his executive authority and called on the United States government to go further to “remove the obstacles that impede or restrict the links between our peoples, the families and the citizens of both our countries.”

Mr. Gross, accompanied by his wife, Judy, and three members of Congress, landed at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington shortly before noon. His sister, Bonnie Rubinstein, was “beyond ecstatic” at the news, according to her husband, Harold. “We are extremely grateful that he’s on his way home,” Mr. Rubinstein said by telephone from Dallas. “It’s been a long ordeal.”

Secretary of State John Kerry landed at Andrews shortly afterward and met with Mr. Gross, his wife, other members of his family and his lawyer, Scott Gilbert. While the meeting was unplanned, a spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said it gave Mr. Kerry a chance to “express his overwhelming happiness that Alan Gross is now free and reunited with his family on American soil.”

At a news conference in Washington, Mr. Gross said he supported Mr. Obama’s move toward normalizing relations with Cuba, adding that his own ordeal and the injustice with which Cuban people have been treated were “a consequence of two governments’ mutually belligerent policies.”

“Five and a half decades of history show us that such belligerence inhibits better judgment. Two wrongs never make a right,” Mr. Gross said. “This is a game-changer, which I fully support.”

Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and a son of Cuban immigrants who may run for president in 2016, denounced the new policy as “another concession to a tyranny” and a sign that Mr. Obama’s administration is “willfully ignorant of the way the world truly works.”

“This whole new policy is based on an illusion, on a lie, the lie and the illusion that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people,” Mr. Rubio said. “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.”

Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was also sharply critical. “Let’s be clear, this was not a ‘humanitarian’ act by the Castro regime. It was a swap of convicted spies for an innocent American,” Mr. Menendez said in a written statement. “President Obama’s actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government.”

Mr. Obama spoke with Mr. Castro by telephone on Tuesday to finalize the agreement in a call that lasted more than 45 minutes, the first direct contact between the leaders of the two countries in more than 50 years, American officials said.

Diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba were severed in January 1961 after the rise of Fidel Castro and his Communist government. Mr. Obama has instructed Mr. Kerry to immediately initiate discussions with Cuba about re-establishing diplomatic relations and to begin the process of removing Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism, which it has been on since 1982, the White House said.

Officials said they would re-establish an embassy in Havana and carry out high-level exchanges and visits between the two governments within months. Mr. Obama will send an assistant secretary of state to Havana next month for talks on Cuban-American migration and will attend a Summit of the Americas along with Mr. Castro. The United States will begin working with Cuba on issues like counternarcotics, environmental protection and human trafficking.

The United States will also ease travel restrictions across all 12 categories currently envisioned under limited circumstances in American law, including family visits, official visits, journalistic, professional, educational and religious activities, and public performances, officials said. Ordinary tourism, however, will remain prohibited.

Mr. Obama will also allow greater banking ties, making it possible to use debit cards in Cuba, and raise the level of remittances allowed to be sent to Cuban nationals to $2,000 every three months from the current limit of $500. Intermediaries forwarding remittances will no longer require a specific license from the government.

American travelers will also be allowed to import up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba, including up to $100 in tobacco and alcohol products.

The Vatican hailed the agreement. “The Holy Father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history,” it said in a statement.

Mr. Gross’s health has been failing. He reportedly lost more than 100 pounds in prison and is losing vision in his right eye. He went on a nine-day hunger strike in April. After turning 65 in May, he told relatives that he might try to kill himself if not released soon.

Three members of Congress were on the plane that picked up Mr. Gross in Cuba on Wednesday and accompanied him back to the United States, officials said: Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, and Representative Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland.

Mr. Gross was in Cuba to deliver satellite telephone equipment that was capable of cloaking connections to the Internet when he was arrested in 2009. The Cuban authorities, who tightly control access to the Internet in their country, initially said he was a spy, and a court there convicted him of bringing in the devices without a permit as part of a subversive plot to “destroy the revolution.”

Mr. Gross’s case drew increasing attention as his health deteriorated. He grew despondent and talked of suicide, and his wife, Judy Gross, and other supporters made urgent pleas for his release, but off-and-on diplomatic talks seemed to go nowhere.

Cuba has often raised the case of three of its spies serving federal prison time in Florida, saying they had been prosecuted unjustly and urging that they be released on humanitarian grounds. State Department officials insisted that the cases were not comparable and that Mr. Gross was not an intelligence agent.

The three Cuban agents were part of the Red Avispa, or the Wasp Network, in Florida along with two other Cuban agents. Mr. Obama used his clemency power to commute their sentences, and they were flown to Cuba by the United States Marshals Service, according to the Justice Department.

The unnamed United States intelligence agent traded for them returned to American soil on Wednesday as well. That agent, described by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence only as “a Cuban individual,” has been imprisoned in Cuba for nearly two decades.

Officials said he was instrumental in identifying the Cuban agents who were sent back on Wednesday. Separately, he also provided information that led to the conviction of Ana Belén Montes, a Defense Intelligence Agency senior analyst; Walter Kendall Myers, a former State Department official; and his wife, Gwendolyn Myers.

“In light of his sacrifice on behalf of the United States, securing his release from prison after 20 years — in a swap for three of the Cuban spies he helped put behind bars — is fitting closure to this Cold War chapter of U.S.-Cuban relations,” the intelligence director’s office said in a statement.

Mr. Gross worked for Development Alternatives, of Bethesda, Md., and had traveled to more than 50 countries as an international development worker. The company had a $6 million contract with the United States Agency for International Development to distribute equipment that could get around Cuba’s Internet blockade, and Mr. Gross had made four previous trips to Cuba in 2009.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the former New Mexico governor and cabinet secretary Bill Richardson and several members of Congress appealed for Mr. Gross’s release, along with Jewish advocacy groups in the United States.

After visiting Mr. Gross in November, Mr. Flake and a longtime advocate of loosening the 50-year-old American trade embargo with Cuba, said he was optimistic that the case would be resolved.

American lawmakers who have drawn attention to Mr. Gross’s case celebrated his departure from Cuba. “Today, news of Alan’s release brings great relief to his loved ones and to every American who has called for his freedom,” said Senator Jerry Moran, Republican of Kansas. “I admire Alan’s strength and that of his wife Judy, who has worked tirelessly for years to free Alan and reunite her family.”

The American government has spent $264 million over the last 18 years, much of it through the development agency, in an effort to spur democratic change in Cuba. The agency said in November that it would cease the kinds of operations that Mr. Gross was involved in when he was arrested, as well as those, disclosed by The Associated Press, that allowed a contractor to set up a Twitter-like social network that hid its ties to the United States government.

IMAGES:

Photo

Alan P. Gross, center, prepared to speak at his lawyer’s office in Washington on Wednesday. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

For more on this story and video go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/18/world/americas/us-cuba-relations.html?_r=0

 

Related story:

A fund with the ticker ‘CUBA’ is exploding higher

By Dan Burns, Reuters From Business Insider

Shares of the Herzfeld Caribbean Basin Fund jumped by more than 20 percent on record volume on Wednesday morning following reports that the Obama administration was preparing to announce sweeping changes to U.S. policy about Cuba.

The fund, a closed-end mutual fund listed on Nasdaq under the ticker “CUBA,” holds stocks and assets that fund manager Thomas Herzfeld believes would benefit from an eventual end to the U.S. economic embargo againstCuba.

In early trading, shares of the fund shot to as high as $8.61, their highest in nearly at year, from the previous day’s close of $6.81, a two-month low. They last traded at $8.08.

Volume topped 3.65 million shares, by far a record amount of trading, compared with a daily average of around 11,000.

For more on this story go to: http://www.businessinsider.com/herzfeld-caribbean-basin-fund-is-soaring-on-cuban-developments-2014-12#ixzz3MBDUk3ol

 

 

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