President Barack Obama announced plans Wednesday to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, open an embassy in Havana and relax trade and travel restrictions — reversing more than half a century of policy aimed at isolating the Communist nation 90 miles from Florida.
"Neither the American nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that's rooted in events that took place before most of us were born," Obama said at the White House. "I do not believe that we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result."
Obama said the moves became possible once Cuba released Alan Gross, the international aid worker from Maryland who was held for more than five years in a Cuban prison for trying to connect the island's small Jewish community to the Internet.
Gross, a subcontractor to the U.S. Agency for International Development, was freed in Havana early Wednesday and flown back to Maryland aboard one of the planes used as Air Force One.
He was accompanied by Judy Gross, his wife of more than 44 years and most vocal advocate; Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who was his congressman before he was detained; and other members of Congress. The group touched down at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George's County about 11 a.m.
Gross expressed gratitude to all who worked for his release. Frail but in good spirits, he spoke during a brief appearance at his lawyer's office in Washington, with his wife at his side.
"Chag Sameach," he began, using the Hebrew for "Happy Holidays," on the second day of Hanukkah.
"What a blessing to be a citizen of this country," he said. "I am incredibly blessed — finally — to have the freedom to resume a positive and constructive life."
The developments Wednesday were stunning. Cuba also released another prisoner, a Cuban man whose detention had been unknown to the public, but whom officials described as a "U.S. intelligence asset" who had been held in Cuba for nearly 20 years.
The United States released three Cubans on Wednesday who had been convicted in federal court of espionage. They were the remaining members of the so-called Cuban Five, intelligence officers who were arrested in South Florida in 1998 and promoted by the Cuban government as heroes.
Obama administration officials said the three Cubans were exchanged for the U.S. intelligence asset, not for Gross. They said — and Cuban President Raul Castro, speaking Wednesday in Havana, agreed — that Gross was released on humanitarian grounds, not as part of a deal for the Cuban Five.
Obama said he had instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to begin discussions to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, which were cut by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961. He said the State Department would open an embassy in Havana and would review Cuba's inclusion on its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Obama also described plans to broaden the reasons for which Americans may travel legally to Cuba; to allow American banks to do business and Americans to use credit and debit cards there; to let businesses sell more goods to the "nascent Cuban private sector"; and to increase the amount of money Americans and others may send to individuals on the island.
Critics on Capitol Hill, including a senior Democrat, blasted the moves. They said the release of Gross was part of a larger deal that included the prisoner swap, and they warned that it endangers the lives of Americans abroad by signaling that the United States will negotiate with those who take its citizens.
The decades-old U.S. embargo remains in place. It would take an act of Congress to lift it.
Obama said the moves he announced Wednesday "place the interests of the people of both countries at the heart of our policy."
"We are taking steps to increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba," he said. "This is fundamentally about freedom and openness. ... Nobody represents America's values better than the American people, and I believe this contact will ultimately do more to empower the Cuban people."
Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, called the announcement "a major moment in the history of the relationship between our two countries."
Van Hollen lauded Obama's decision to open "a new chapter in our relations with Cuba — a fresh policy better tailored to the 21st century than the Cold War relic of our policy to date."
"For 54 years the U.S. has tried to bring about positive change and reform in Cuba by attempting to isolate the island nation," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "It is clear that — as measured by our own goals — that policy has been a miserable failure. …
"Today, President Obama's actions recognize that the best way to bring about positive change in Cuba is through more — not less — engagement with the island and its people."
Sen. Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a Cuban-American, called the news "a moment of profound relief for Alan Gross and his family."
But the New Jersey Democrat added that "Obama's actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government."
"There is no equivalence between an international aid worker and convicted spies who were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage against our nation," Menendez said. "Trading Mr. Gross for three convicted criminals sets an extremely dangerous precedent. It invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips."
Obama, who campaigned for president in part on improving relations with Cuba, described the moves as "the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years."
He said he had been prepared to improve relations "for some time," but the "wrongful imprisonment" of Gross had been "a major obstacle [that] stood in our way."
The Obama administration began talks with the Cuban government last spring in meetings that took place mostly in Canada but also at the Vatican. Obama said Pope Francis made personal appeals to him and to Castro to reach an agreement for Gross' release.
Obama and Castro spoke by telephone on Tuesday, they said. It was the first presidential-level discussion between the two nations since the Cuban Revolution headed by Raul's brother Fidel toppled U.S. ally Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
Gross, 65, was arrested in Havana in December 2009 after he took communications equipment into the Communist nation. He was convicted by a Cuban court of crimes against the state and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
It was his fifth trip to the island working for a Bethesda-based contractor to the U.S. Agency for International Development. Gross and administration officials say he was trying to help Cuba's small Jewish community gain better access to the Internet and set up their own intranet.
The USAID program has since been canceled. Among the changes that were announced Wednesday, Obama said the United States would allow American businesses to export Internet and other telecommunications equipment to help Cubans communicate with Americans and the rest of the world.
Reaction to the policy moves fell largely along partisan lines.
"More travel, more trade and more communication between the United States and Cuba will expose Cuba to the benefits of the free exchange of goods and ideas," Van Hollen said.
But Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and a Cuban-American, said Obama had "let the people of Cuba down."
"It is disgraceful for a president who claims to treasure human rights and human freedom," said Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "[Obama has] basically given the Cuban government everything it's asked for."
Gross called Obama's new Cuba policy "a game-changer," and said he supports it.
"Five and a half decades of history show us that such belligerence inhibits better judgment," Gross said. "Two wrongs never made a right. I truly hope that we can now get beyond those mutually belligerent policies."
Cuban authorities had long called for the release of the Cuban Five. The intelligence officers, members of La Red Avispa — the Wasp Network — infiltrated anti-Castro Cuban-American groups in South Florida. They were arrested in 1998 and convicted in 2001 of conspiracy to commit espionage.
In Havana, Raul Castro hailed the return of Gerardo Hernandez, Antonio Guerrero and Ramon Labanino, the three members of the Cuban Five who were still in prison.
"As a result of a dialogue at the highest level, which included a telephone conversation I had yesterday with President Barack Obama, it has been possible to advance a solution on some themes of interest to both nations," Castro said Wednesday in an address to his nation. "This decision of President Obama deserves the respect and recognition of our people."
A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence described the U.S. intelligence asset released in exchange for Hernandez, Guerrero and Labanino as "a Cuban individual ... who provided critical assistance to the United States," including information that was "instrumental in the identification and disruption of several Cuban intelligence operatives in the United States."
Spokesman Brian Hale said the individual provided information that led to the identification and conviction of Defense Intelligence Agency senior analyst Ana Belen Montes; former State Department official Walter Kendall Myers and his wife, Gwendolyn; and members of La Red Avispa, including the Cuban Five.
"In light of his sacrifice on behalf of the United States," Hale said, "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 World chapter of U.S.-Cuban relations."
Gross grew up in Baltimore and attended the University of Maryland. He was living in Potomac when he was arrested.
Cuba watchers were surprised by the length of his sentence, and that he was not released and sent home after sentencing, as has happened in similar cases.
Gross and his wife have two grown daughters. He asked Cuban authorities for permission to leave the island to visit one daughter as she underwent treatment for breast cancer and to say goodbye to his ailing mother. He said he would return to complete his sentence. The requests were denied; his mother died in June.
Obama, his Secretaries of State Kerry and Hillary Clinton, Cardin, Van Hollen and other officials urged Cuban authorities to release Gross. Former President Jimmy Carter and Pope Benedict XVI made personal appeals to Raul Castro during visits to the island.
Gross marked five years in prison this month as advocates warned that his case was growing dire. He lost more than 100 pounds in prison, and family members said his health was failing.
Gross started a hunger strike in the spring, and told his wife and younger daughter during a visit this year that he could not take life in prison much longer.