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, American officials said Wednesday.
In a deal negotiated during 18 months of secret talks hosted largely by Canada and encouraged by Pope Francis, who hosted a final culminating meeting at the Vatican, President Obama and President Raul Castro of Cuba agreed in a telephone call to put aside decades of hostility to find a new relationship between the island nation just 90 minutes off the American coast.
The contractor, Alan Gross, boarded an American government plane bound for the United States on Wednesday morning and the United States sent back three Cuban spies who have been in an American prison since 1981. American officials said the Cuban spies were swapped for a United States intelligence agent who has been in a Cuban prison for nearly 20 years and said Mr. Gross was not technically part of the swap but 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 administration signaled that it would welcome a move by Congress to ease or lift it should lawmakers choose to.
“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.
By Peter Baker – New York Times –