US, Cuba to restore diplomatic ties after 50 years; sanctions eased

18 Dec 2014


The United States and Cuba agreed on Wednesday to restore diplomatic ties that Washington severed more than 50 years ago, and President Barack Obama called for an end to the long economic embargo against its old Cold War enemy.

After 18 months of secret talks, Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro agreed in a phone call on Tuesday on a breakthrough prisoner exchange, the opening of embassies in each other's countries, and an easing of some restrictions on commerce.

The two leaders made the announcement in simultaneous televised speeches. The Vatican and Canada facilitated the deal.

Obama's call for an end to the economic embargo drew resistance from Republicans who will control both houses of Congress from January and who oppose normal relations with the Communist island-state.

Obama said he was ending what he called a rigid and outdated policy of isolating Cuba, which had failed to achieve change on the island.

His administration's policy shift includes opening more commerce in some areas, allowing use of US credit and debit cards, increasing the amount of money that can be sent home by Cubans in the US, and allowing export of telecommunications devices and services.

Travel restrictions that make it hard for most Americans to visit will be eased, but the door will not yet be open for broad US tourism on the Caribbean island.

Obama's announcement also will not end the US trade embargo that has been in force for more than 50 years. That is codified in legislation and needs congressional approval. Obama said he would seek that approval but likely faces a struggle.

Obama said the opening was made possible by Havana's release of American Alan Gross, 65, who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years. Gross's case had been a major obstacle to improving relations.

Cuba also released an intelligence agent who spied for the United States and was held for nearly 20 years, and the United States in return freed three Cuban intelligence agents held in the United States.

Cuba and the US have been ideological foes since soon after the 1959 revolution that brought President Raul Castro's older brother, Fidel Castro, to power. Washington broke diplomatic relations with Havana in 1961 as Cuba steered a leftist course that turned it into a close ally of the former Soviet Union - sending jitters up American spines, as the island lies just 140 km south of Florida.

The hostilities were punctuated by crises over spies, refugees and the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Washington was increasingly alone in its efforts to squeeze Cuba. Raul Castro, who took over from Fidel Castro when his brother retired in 2008, has maintained a one-party political system.
Obama said Cuba still needed to enact economic reforms and uphold human rights among other changes but that it was time for a new approach.

Americans are largely open to establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll of more than 31,000 adults conducted between July and October. About one-fifth of those surveyed said they opposed such a move, while 43 per cent said the United States should restore relations with Cuba and around 37 per cent said they were unsure.

Although a growing number of US lawmakers favour more normal ties, those lawmakers are still mostly Democrats, and after big midterm election gains in November, Republicans will control both houses of Congress in the New Year.

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