Reuters Cuban soldiers hold flags of Cuba and Youth Communist league during a ceremony in Havana last month.
President Barack Obama is set to make an announcement about a major shift in US policy towards Cuba at noon on Wednesday.
Cuba released Alan Gross, a worker with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) who was arrested in Cuba in 2009, prior to the announcement.
In a conference call with reporters ahead of the president's remarks, senior administration officials detailed the policy changes that will occur, which one described as "beginning the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba."
"These steps will be the most significant changes to our Cuba policy in more than 50 years," the official said.
Relations between America and Cuba, which is located less than 100 miles from the southernmost point in the US, began to deteriorate in 1959 following the revolution that brought the Communist regime of Fidel Castro to power. The US subsequently maintained an embargo against Cuba and severed diplomatic relations. Castro's regime has been criticized by many opponents for its human rights record and repression of free speech.
The official also detailed the different components of the US policy shift. They identified three major elements of the change:
- The official said the US is "beginning discussions to re-establish diplomatic relations that have been severed since 1961." An official who spoke on the White House call said this would lead to the establishment of a US embassy in Cuba and a Cuban counterpart in America. In spite of this, they said the Obama administration expects to continue to have "strong differences" with Cuba, particularly on issues relating to democracy and human rights.
- According to the official, President Barack Obama has instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to review Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terror.
- Lastly, the official said the US will take a "number of steps to significantly increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba." This will include an easing of current travel restrictions and efforts to make it easier for Americans to use debit cards and other financial instruments in the country.
However, the senior administration official who gave the summary of the policy changes on the White House conference call noted Obama was "committed" to changing US posture towards Cuba since he took office in 2009 and they said the administration felt the current polecy "failed" to advance US interests.
"If any foreign policy has passed its expiration date, it is the US Cuba policy," an official who spoke on the call said.
This policy shift comes on the heels of a prisoner swap between the US and countries. According to a senior administration official who spoke on the White House call, the swap included the release of Fross, who was accused of importing technology that is prohibited in the country in an attempt to establish a clandestine internet network for Cuban Jews. They said Gross was released on humanitarian grounds. The senior administration official also said there was a swap of "intelligence assets" between the two countries.
Additionally, the senior administration official said the US agreed to release three members of the "so-called Cuban Five," a group of Cuban intelligence officers who were arrested in Miami, Florida in 1998. Two members of the group were released prior to the swap that was announced Wednesday. In exchange, the official also said Cuba agreed to release an unnamed "US intelligence asset who has been imprisoned in Cuba for nearly 20 years." They said this "asset" provided significant information, some of which helped led to the discovery of the so-called "Wasp Network" of Cuban spies based in the US, which included the Cuban Five.
In addition to Obama's remarks, Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba's Communist party is reporting Raul Castro, the country's president and Fidel's brother, will be making a special appearance on state television and radio to discuss relations with the US at noon on Wednesday. The senior administration official who summarized the policy changes on the White House conference call also said Castro and Obama spoke on Tuesday to finalize the details of the agreement.
According to the official, this policy change was set in motion after a "high level channel" was opened between US and Cuban officials. They identified the Americans who opened this "channel" as Ben Rhodes, an assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor for strategic communications and speechwriting, and Ricardo Zuniga, the senior director for the Western Hemisphere on the president's national security council.
The official said "the majority" of the meetings between US and Cuban officials occurred in Canada. They also noted the Vatican hosted meetings and played a significant role supporting the talks. None of the meetings occurred in the US or Cuba. An official also said Fidel Castro, who retired in 2008 due to illness, was "not involved in the discussions."
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