In a speech at the White House on Wednesday, President Obama announced that the United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than 50 years.
"We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests," Obama said. The president pointed out that the U.S. has relations with China as well as Vietnam, "where we fought a war that claimed more Americans than any Cold War confrontation." The policy, he claimed, was "rooted in events that took place before most of us were born." He said that what had stood in the way for him doing more to change relations with Cuba was "the wrongful imprisonment" of U.S. contractor Alan Gross, who was released from jail today after five years.
The president also said his administration will look into changing the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, which was applied by the Reagan administration.
On Tuesday, Obama spoke to Raul Castro for 45 minutes to discuss the historic announcement. It's the first phone call between the leaders of the U.S. and Cuba in decades.
As part of the diplomatic thaw, the U.S. will ease restrictions on remittances, travel, and banking relations regarding Cuba.
"We're authorizing as much travel as we can within the constraint of the legislation," a senior administration official told reporters before Obama spoke. The embargo will still stay in place pending Congressional action. Americans will be permitted to use debit and credit cards in Cuba, and Americans will be able to bring back Cuban cigars legally for the first time in over 50 years.
In return for an American intelligence agent held for nearly 20 years, the U.S. sent back three Cuban spies held since 2001. (Cuba will also release 53 political prisoners.)
The secret U.S.-Cuba negotiations took place over a period of 18 months, hosted mostly by Canada and encouraged by Pope Francis from the outset of his papacy.