President Obama speaks on the phone with Cuban president Raul Castro, on December 17, 2014.

President Obama speaks on the phone with Cuban president Raul Castro, on December 17, 2014. White House photo by Pete Souza

Obama Restores Diplomatic Ties With Cuba After More Than 50 Years

President Obama swaps prisoners with Cuba and changes the course of history. By Molly O’Toole

In a historic move, the United States will reopen its embassy in Cuba and normalize diplomatic and economic relations broken more than 50 years ago, President Barack Obama announced Wednesday.

The shift in policy was facilitated through a swap of a U.S. intelligence agent imprisoned in Cuba for 20 years, and three of the so-called “Cuba Five” who were convicted of spying in 2001 and held in the United States. Cuba also released USAID contractor Alan Gross, who has been held in a Cuban jail for the past five years, on humanitarian grounds.

“No other nation joins us in imposing these sanctions and it has had little effect,” Obama said at the White House. “Neither the American nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.

“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked -- it’s time for a new approach.”

The State Department is also reviewing whether to remove Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism. Obama noted the dramatic changes to Cuba’s role in terrorism in the past few decades. “At a time when we are focused on threats from al Qaeda to ISIL, a nation that meets our conditions and renounces the use of terrorism should not face this sanction,” he said.

A senior administration official told Defense One the policy changes will not impact the president’s continued effort to close the Guantanamo detention center and that it did not factor into the discussions. It’s unclear how the new policy will affect U.S. military relations with Cuba’s military.

If there’s any U.S. foreign policy that’s passed its expiration date, it’s the U.S.-Cuba policy.
Senior Administration Official

But the shift could have broad implications for foreign policy and national security, particularly on partnerships in the region and tensions with Russia. It also raises the stakes on Obama’s relationship with Congress -- and the 2016 presidential race.

Obama pledged to re-examine U.S. policy toward Cuba when he entered office, but the imprisonment of Gross and the intelligence agent – a Cuban national who isn’t being named for safety reasons -- was the major impediment.

“This individual was responsible for some of the most important intelligence and counter-intelligence prosecutions we’ve been able to pursue in recent decades,” a senior administration official said.

Obama spoke by phone with Cuban President Raul Castro on Tuesday to finalize the details of the policy changes -- the first presidential-level engagement with Cuba since the Cuban Revolution.

“President Obama’s decision deserves the respect and acknowledgement of our people,” Castro said in a speech in Havana on Wednesday.

“While acknowledging our profound differences, particularly on issues related to national sovereignty, democracy, human rights and foreign policy, I reaffirm our willingness to dialogue on all these issues,” he said.

Raul’s brother Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, and the U.S.-Cuba relationship froze in the 1960s amid the Cold War. The CIA botched an attempt to overthrow the Castro regime in 1961 in the Bay of Pigs invasion, and Cuba turned to Russia, leading to the Cuban missile crisis. President John F. Kennedy put in place the economic embargo and strict restrictions on travel to the island that largely still exist today, and they remained even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuba was placed on the list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1982.

“If there’s any U.S. foreign policy that’s passed its expiration date, it’s the U.S.-Cuba policy,” a senior administration official said.   

(Related: How President Clinton Tried To End the Cuban Embargo)

In 2008, Fidel transferred the presidency to his brother Raul, who has implemented some economic reforms and lifted a number of travel restrictions. The Cuban government estimates that more than 50 years of economic strictures has cost the country some $1.126 trillion, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

The isolation the U.S. imposed on Cuba led it to seek allies who held American neoliberalism as a common enemy, such as Venezuela and Russia. But even beyond Venezuela, the U.S. policy toward Cuba is “a huge burden, if not an albatross on our relationship in the hemisphere,” a senior administration official said, noting that every bilateral relationship in the region comes down to “when are you going to change your Cuba policy?”

“This could be a transformative event for the U.S. in Latin America,” the official said. Both Cuba and the U.S. will participate in the Summit of the Americas next spring in Panama, where the U.S. plans to push an agenda focused on human rights and democracy.

Not only has this policy failed to advance America's goals, it has actually isolated the United States instead of isolating Cuba.
Secretary of State John Kerry

Obama’s move is also another jab at Russian President Vladimir Putin. His country is suffering its own economic sanctions put in place by the U.S. in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its renewed aggression in the region. And Russia’s currency, the ruble, is plummeting.

According to senior administration officials, Obama authorized high-level negotiations with the Cuban government last spring, and the first “face-to-face” talks with the Cubans occurred in June of 2013. Over the last year and a half, multiple meetings took place in third countries, primarily Canada, and also at the Vatican. The pope personally issued an appeal for the relations to be repaired.

Secretary of State John Kerry will report to Obama in six months regarding Cuba’s terrorism designation and he is expected to travel to Havana soon.

“I was a 17-year-old kid watching on a black and white television set when I first heard an American president talk of Cuba as an ‘imprisoned island,’” Kerry said Wednesday. “Not only has this policy failed to advance America's goals, it has actually isolated the United States instead of isolating Cuba.”

While the 2 million Cubans and Cuban-Americans living in the U.S. and the roughly 11 million Cubans on the island are likely to benefit from eased restrictions, members of Congress who have long opposed any thaw in diplomatic relations with Cuba railed against the decision almost immediately.

Congressional support is key -- the long-standing travel ban and embargo on Cuba cannot be lifted without an act of Congress.

While praising Gross’s return, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “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. President Obama's actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government … It invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips.”

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who represents a large Cuban population, vowed to block the changes as the incoming chairman of the Foreign Relations committee’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee. “Today’s announcement initiating a dramatic change in U.S. policy toward Cuba is just the latest in a long line of failed attempts by President Obama to appease rogue regimes at all cost,” he said. “Cuba, like Syria, Iran and Sudan, remains a state sponsor of terrorism.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., went further, pledging to block funds to open the embassy in Havana. “Normalizing relations with Cuba is bad idea at a bad time,” he said.

Obama said his administration will “engage” with the Castro regime on human rights and democracy. “Where we disagree, we will raise those differences directly -– as we will continue to do on issues related to democracy and human rights in Cuba,” he said. “But I believe that we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement.”

There has been a seismic demographic shift in the politics of Cuban-American relations over the past five decades -- younger generations are much more supportive of normalizing relations with Cuba. This could put conservative Cuban-American politicians who oppose lifting the embargo and ban -- such as Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas -- on the wrong side of the issue just as they gear up for a potential 2016 run.  

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who announced Tuesday he is exploring a presidential bid, said recently he supports a continued embargo on Cuba. When former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ran in 2008, she was for the embargo, but she has since changed her position. Her husband, President Bill Clinton, tried to end it during his tenure.

“The embargo is Castro's best friend,” Clinton said in June. “Probably the most important long-term commitment this country can make is to a much closer, more constructive relationship within our own hemisphere. And if we do that, we will be much better positioned to deal with all else that goes on in the world.”

Kedar Pavgi contributed to this report.