President Barack Obama announced a major change in United States’ policy toward Cuba this week. He said he wants Congress to ease more than 50 years of U.S. sanctions against the island nation. And he said the two nations should once again formally recognize one another.
“I’ve instructed Secretary (of State John) Kerry to immediately begin discussions with Cuba to re-establish diplomatic relations that have been severed since January of 1961.”
Mr. Obama said he also wants to see the easing of restrictions on banking, business activities and travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba. And representatives of the two countries will meet to talk about reopening the U.S. embassy in Havana.
The surprising announcement was made as Cuba released Alan Gross, an American citizen who worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Mr. Gross was arrested in Havana in 2009 and charged with bringing communications equipment to Cuba. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
President Obama said Mr. Gross was returning home as part of a prisoner exchange with the Cuban government. He said Mr. Gross and a man described as “one of the most important (U.S.) intelligence agents” were exchanged for three Cuban spies. The three were said to have spent more than 10 years in U.S. prisons.
In Cuba, President Raul Castro spoke to the nation. He praised Mr. Obama’s move to normalize relations.
He said “This decision by President Obama deserves the respect and recognition of our people.”
The announcement that the two countries would normalize relations followed more than a year of secret talks between the two long-time enemies. Canadian officials and Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, also took part in the discussions. The pope expressed his “warm congratulations” on the re-establishment of diplomatic ties.
One opinion survey found that Americans are generally supportive of the change in policy. Many agreed with President Obama that the sanctions against Cuba have failed to help U.S. interests. Some of the measures have lasted more than half a century. To cancel the restrictions, the president needs approval from the United States Congress. When Congress begins debating the issue next year, it will be controlled by Republicans, who generally oppose the policies of President Obama, who is a Democrat.
Critics of the decision say improving relations with Cuba will be a sign of support for the country’s government. One of those critics is Marco Rubio, a United States Senator from Florida. Mr. Rubio is a Cuban-American and a member of the Republican Party. He reacted quickly and strongly to the announcement.
“This president is the single worst negotiator we’ve had in the White House in my lifetime -- who has basically given the Cuban government everything it asked for and received no assurances of any advances in democracy and freedom in return.”
Many Cubans fled to the United States in the years after Fidel Castro came to power. Some of those who fled have long supported a policy of separating Cuba from the rest of the world. They approved of actions against Cuban officials and travel bans, even if it meant their family members could not return to Cuba.
I’m Christopher Cruise.
VOA Correspondents Zlatica Hoke and Luis Ramirez reported this story. George Grow wrote it for VOA Learning English. Christopher Cruise was the editor.
Words in This Story
policy - n. an established set of plans or goals used to develop and make decisions in politics, economics or business
embassy - n. the offices of an ambassador and his or her assistants
prison - n. a place where a person is kept as punishment for a crime
intelligence - n. the ability to think or learn; information gathered by spying