Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    After a half century, a thaw in U.S.-Cuba ties

    After a half century, a thaw in U.S.-Cuba ties
    12/17/2014 9:10 PM 12/17/2014 10:14 PM

    Changing a relationship frozen in time for more than 50 years, President
    Barack Obama ushered in a new era of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations
    Wednesday that could bring more trade, support for Cuba’s nascent
    entrepreneurs and more open communications with the island.

    But as the president prepared to send a senior administration delegation
    to Havana early next year, his move provoked the ire of South Florida’s
    influential Cuban-American congressional delegation, who vowed to try to
    block his policies.

    The release of two Americans imprisoned in Cuba and three convicted
    Cuban spies serving long prison terms in the United States paved the way
    for the historic thaw.

    Obama not only said that the U.S. and Cuba would work toward
    reestablishing embassies in their respective capitals but also that the
    United States planned a series of measures that would increase U.S.
    travel and trade with Cuba and allow a freer flow of information to and
    from the island. The U.S. also is reviewing whether Cuba should remain
    on a list of state sponsors of terrorism.

    The U.S. embargo, which can only be lifted by an act of Congress,
    remains in effect. But Obama, who has long wanted to make major steps
    toward an improved relationship, seems to have pushed what he is able to
    do under executive authority to the outer limits.

    As U.S.-Cuba relations soured after the 1959 Cuban revolution, the
    United States broke off diplomatic relations Dec. 3, 1961, and the next
    five decades were marked by hostilities that included a U.S. trade
    embargo against the island, the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion, and a
    communist state that became increasingly hardline under Fidel Castro.

    Separation of families and a huge exodus of Cubans to the United States
    also were byproducts of the bitter relationship.

    “These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” Obama said.
    “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.”

    The news was greeted in Miami, which has become the capital of Cuban
    exile, with elation, heartbreak, anger, suspicion and caution. In his
    remarks, the president made mention of the countless Cubans who have
    come to the city often with little more than “hope in their hearts” and
    the “enormous contributions” that they have made to the United States.

    “To those who oppose the steps I’m announcing today, let me say that I
    respect your passion and share your commitment to liberty and
    democracy,” Obama said. “The question is how we uphold that commitment.
    I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades
    and expect a different result.”

    Obama made his remarks at the same time Cuban leader Raúl Castro shared
    the news that the U.S. and Cuba would be normalizing relations with his
    country, that it had released U.S. Agency for International Development
    subcontractor Alan Gross from prison for humanitarian reasons and that
    three Cuban spies would be coming home.

    U.S. officials said Castro also independently decided to release 53
    political prisoners whose cases had been advocated for by the United
    States, and pledged to increase Internet connections for Cuban citizens.

    Alan Gross, who was arrested by the Cubans on Dec. 3, 2009, for
    smuggling military-grade telecommunications equipment to Cuba, had been
    serving a 15-year sentence and his continued incarceration had put the
    brakes on any improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations.

    The United States released three Cuban spies who were serving lengthy
    prison terms in connection with the Feb. 24, 1996, shoot-down of two
    Brothers to the Rescue planes by Cuba and the deaths of four exile
    pilots. Two other spies had already finished their terms and are back in

    But the three Cubans weren’t swapped for Gross, but rather for a CIA
    agent who had been jailed in Cuba for nearly 20 years and was
    responsible for some of the most important counterintelligence
    prosecutions that the United States has pursued in recent decades.

    The United States had insisted it couldn’t do a spy-for-spy swap
    involving Gross because he wasn’t a spy.

    In his televised address, Castro highlighted that there are still deep
    differences between the two nations and that the embargo — the “heart of
    the matter” — would continue to be a sticking point.

    “The economic, commercial, and financial blockade, which causes enormous
    human and economic damages to our country, must cease,” he said.

    The United States also emphasized that Cuba’s approach to human rights,
    democracy and civil society were areas of strong differences. But a
    senior U.S. administration official said that renewing diplomatic
    relations was a better way “to advance our interests and values.”

    “Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the
    American and Cuban people, and begin a new chapter among the nations of
    the Americas,” the president said at noon from the White House.

    High-level talks between the two countries have been underway since June
    2013 at various third-party locations, including Canada and the Vatican.
    Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser for
    strategic communications, and Ricardo Zúñiga, National Security Council
    senior director for the Western Hemisphere, spearheaded the U.S. team.

    Pope Francis also intervened, sending rare personal letters to both
    Obama and Castro, urging them to find a way forward on the plight of the
    prisoners and other matters.

    Gross flew to freedom accompanied by his wife Judy and a U.S.
    congressional delegation on Wednesday — the first day of Hanukkah.

    At a news conference in Washington, D.C., he thanked all who had worked
    for his freedom and said, “What a blessing to be a citizen of the United
    States of America.”

    “In my last letter to President Obama, I wrote that despite my five-year
    tenure in captivity I would not want to trade places with him, and I
    certainly would not want to trade places on this glorious day,” Gross said.

    The three Cubans — Gerardo Hernández Nordelo, Antonio Guerrero and Ramón
    Labañino Salazar — were released from prisons in California, Marianna,
    Florida, and Kentucky.

    “Five years of isolation notwithstanding, I did not need daily briefings
    to be cognizant of what are undoubtedly incredible challenges facing our
    nation and the global community,” Gross said.

    The final details of the new era in Cuba relations and the release of
    the respective prisoners were worked out in a phone call between Obama
    and Castro — the first direct phone call between U.S. and Cuban leaders
    since Fidel Castro took power.

    Perhaps cognizant of the jolt the news would cause in Miami where many
    exiles have long been convinced that the only change in U.S.-Cuban
    relations would come when Fidel Castro was dead and his brother Raúl was
    no longer in power, Obama said: “Change is hard — in our own lives, and
    in the lives of nations. And change is even harder when we carry the
    heavy weight of history on our shoulders.”

    For those in Miami who oppose closer U.S. relations without significant
    concessions on the part of Cuba, Obama has been branded the “appeaser in

    Maggie Khuly, sister of one of the victims of the shoot-down, Armando
    Alejandre Jr., said she and the other families were outraged by the
    president’s decision.

    “We’re giving them a lot of stuff in payment for the exchange of a
    hostage,” Khuly told the Miami Herald. “What about human rights? It’s
    just incredible. I’m extremely disappointed in the president.”

    But on the other end of the spectrum, Vivian Mannerud, who has pioneered
    free travel to Cuba and advocated better relations with Havana, said,
    “I’m so happy. This has been so many years in coming, so much blood,
    sweat and tears.”

    She predicted renewed relations would be the impetus to chip away at the
    embargo and repeal the Helms-Burton Act, which sets a high bar before
    the embargo can be lifted. Among other things, it stipulates that there
    must be a transitional government in place with neither Castro in power
    and that Cuba must hold free, fair and internationally supervised
    elections within 18 months of a transitional government assuming power.

    “To me, this is the true end of the Cold War. Let the talks begin,” said
    Mannerud, who runs Airline Brokers, a company that used to be in the
    Cuba charter business but now sells airline tickets to Cuba and makes
    other travel arrangements.

    As part of Obama’s directive to move toward reestablishment of
    diplomatic relations with Cuba, Assistant Secretary for the Western
    Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson will travel to Cuba in January as the head
    of a U.S. delegation for the next round of U.S.-Cuba migration talks.

    “Where we can advance shared interests, we will — on issues like health,
    migration, counterterrorism, drug trafficking and disaster response,”
    Obama said.

    “I look forward to being the first secretary of state in 60 years to
    visit Cuba,” Kerry said. “I was a seventeen-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.”

    After severing full diplomatic relations in 1961, the U.S. and Cuban
    embassies remained shuttered until interests sections were established
    in both capitals to handle consular work, migration and other issues
    between the two countries.

    Although these interests sections are housed in the old embassy
    buildings, they are run under the auspices of the Swiss government.

    Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said he planned to use his role as
    incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Western
    Hemisphere subcommittee “to block this dangerous and desperate attempt
    by the President to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people’s expense.”

    Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, who sits on budget
    committees that oversee the U.S. Treasury and State Department, said
    he’s in favor of withholding money from both.

    But former President Jimmy Carter said he hopes Congress will go even
    further than Obama’s actions.

    “I am delighted with the wise and courageous decision of President Obama
    to improve relations with Cuba, and congratulate Alan Gross and his
    family on his freedom,” Carter said. “I hope the U.S. Congress will take
    steps to remove the economic sanctions against the Cuban people, which
    have proven to be ineffective in furthering democracy and freedom.”

    Under Carter’s watch, the interest sections were established in each

    Obama’s decision could also become an early political issue in the 2016
    race for president. Two potential Republican White House candidates from
    Miami, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Rubio have long espoused a get-tougher
    approach with Cuba.

    Bush lauded the release of Gross but said he was uncomfortable with the
    idea of a prisoner swap. In a statement, he said Obama’s action
    “undermines America’s credibility and undermines the quest for a free
    and democratic Cuba.”

    “Cuba is a dictatorship with a disastrous human rights record,” Bush
    wrote, “and now President Obama has rewarded those dictators.”

    Potential Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has previously said that
    the embargo has outlived its usefulness.

    “I am deeply relieved by Alan Gross’ safe return to the United States
    and I support President Obama’s decision to change course on Cuba
    policy, while keeping the focus on our principal objective — supporting
    the aspirations of the Cuban people for freedom,” Clinton said.

    In charting a new course for Cuba, the United States said it was also
    revamping its financial relationship with the island to the extent
    allowed by the embargo.

    The proposals would allow freer travel to Cuba by Americans but would
    not allow visits whose sole purpose is tourism. They would also allow
    export of goods needed to support the activities of Cuba’s self-employed
    sector — the cuentapropistas, inputs for small private farmers and
    building materials that everyday Cubans need to construct and improve
    their homes.

    Regulations also will be written to allow the commercial export of
    computers, related software and other telecommunications equipment. U.S.
    telecommunications providers would be able to establish infrastructure
    in Cuba to support improved telecommunications between the U.S. and Cuba.

    The president’s action does not lift the travel ban for all Americans,
    but it does allow 12 groups of authorized travelers, including those on
    humanitarian projects and business people involved in permitted
    activities, to visit Cuba under general licenses — meaning they won’t
    have to seek prior approval from the United States.

    Twice previously in 2009 and 2011, Obama relaxed restrictions on travel
    to Cuba.

    U.S. travelers to Cuba will be allowed to bring back $400 worth of Cuban
    goods per trip, including $100 worth of alcohol and tobacco products.
    That means that Cuba’s famed cigars and rum will be readily available
    for personal use but not for commercial sale.

    Eventually, the U.S. would allow Cuba travelers to use credit and debit
    cards on the island and U.S. financial institutions also will be
    permitted to open correspondent accounts at Cuban banks.

    In a move that should make it easier for Cuba to buy U.S. products, the
    “cash in advance” requirement will be revised to “cash before transfer
    of title” for eligible products. The U.S. will also allow increased
    remittances to Cuban nationals, boosting the level from $500 per quarter
    to $2,000.

    None of these economic changes will take effect, however, until a series
    of new regulations are written.

    Miamian Andy Gomez, a senior policy adviser for the Poblete Tamargo law
    firm in Washington, said he was taking the news of changes with a grain
    of salt. “Business is driving politics to a great extent,” he said. “I’m
    very cautious. I need to see what the next meeting in Havana will bring.”

    Senior U.S. officials said that U.S. Cuba policy had isolated the United
    States as the world has changed and has caused a rift with Latin
    American nations. They were hopeful that with movement on the Cuba
    issue, U.S. relations with the Americas would also improve.

    The United States and Cuba will both be at the Summit of the Americas in
    Panama next year and U.S. officials said human rights and democracy will
    be major themes at the gathering.

    “It’s a huge burden, if not an albatross on our relations in the
    Americas,” said a senior U.S. official. “This could be a transformative
    event for the United States in Latin America.”

    Staff writer Marc Caputo and Jay Weaver and El Nuevo Herald staff writer
    Enrique Flor contributed to this report.

    Source: After a half century, a thaw in U.S.-Cuba ties | The Miami
    Herald –