Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Here’s What Happened in Cuba Today, and Why You Should Care

    Here’s What Happened in Cuba Today, and Why You Should Care
    By Natalie Kitroeff December 17, 2014

    In simultaneous speeches from Washington and Havana, the United States
    and Cuba announced plans on Wednesday to restore their diplomatic
    relationship, an historic shift marked by setting up a U.S. embassy in
    Havana and loosening trade and travel restrictions between the two
    countries.

    “In the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years, we
    will end an outdated approach that for decades failed to advance our
    interests,” President Obama said in a speech. “Neither the American nor
    Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events
    that took place before most of us were born.”

    The announcement will bring a slew of changes for Americans who want to
    visit Cuba or do business there and an even greater transformation for
    Cubans living on the island. Here’s what you need to know:

    Why is this happening today?

    Before coming to office in 2008, Obama said he wanted to revisit the icy
    cold relationship with Cuba, but a couple of critical issues stood in
    the way of a diplomatic breakthrough—most significantly: an American
    citizen and a U.S. agent imprisoned on Cuban soil. Those obstacles
    disappeared today. Alan Gross, an American contractor who spent five
    years in a Cuban prison after being convicted for importing Internet
    equipment that a Cuban court said was designed to “destroy the
    revolution,” was released on Wednesday on humanitarian grounds. An
    unnamed U.S. intelligence agent, who helped identify a network of Cubans
    who were ultimately convicted of spying, was also released after
    spending two decades in prison. In return, U.S. officials released three
    of the five members of the network who were still confined.

    What does the Pope have to do with it?

    Pope Francis wrote letters to Obama and Raul Castro, pleading with the
    leaders to release both Alan Gross and the Cubans imprisoned for
    espionage. He also reportedly offered up the Vatican as the site for the
    final meeting between representatives of Obama and Castro, who were in
    talks for over a year. The blessing from on high seems to have been
    crucial, partly because some four in 10 Cubans identify as Roman
    Catholic. Both leaders gave the Pope shout-outs in the “acknowledgements
    section” of their speeches. Obama thanked the Pope, “whose moral example
    shows us importance of pursuing the world as it should be,” and Castro
    acknowledged the “support of the Vatican” for the “betterment of the
    relations between Cuba and the U.S.”

    Who’s happy about this? And who’s not?

    Judging by recent surveys, most Americans agree with the president. In a
    2009 survey, two-thirds of Americans said they wanted to have a normal
    diplomatic relationship with Cuba, up from just 38 percent 10 years
    earlier. Some in Congress are less thrilled. Said House Speaker John
    Boehner (R-Ohio): “Relations with the Castro regime should not be
    revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom.”
    Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said in a statement
    issued on Wednesday that “President Obama’s actions have vindicated the
    brutal behavior of the Cuban government.” Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)
    called the move a “dangerous and desperate attempt by the president to
    burnish his legacy at the Cuban people’s expense.”

    Great. So how soon can I book a flight directly to Cuba?

    Hold your horses. The new rules don’t allow Americans to travel to Cuba
    as tourists. They make it easier for people who can already travel to
    Cuba to do so, including Cubans visiting family members, people going on
    educational trips, humanitarian ones, or even for athletic events.
    Anyone who can prove that their visit falls under one of 12 categories,
    listed here, will be eligible for a general license allowing them to
    bypass the bureaucratic headache entailed in obtaining a so-called
    “specific license,” for which some travelers in these categories had to
    apply before the new rules were instated.

    How will this affect my Cuban cigar collection?

    Even though the new rules don’t let American tourists travel freely to
    Cuba, they do let Americans who travel to Cuba for other reasons act
    more like tourists. You can bring home $400 worth of Cuban goods now,
    and yes, you can bring back cigars—$100 worth. If you find yourself in
    Cuba legally, you can now use credit cards or debit cards, according to
    the new regulations. Previously, you needed to bring a pile of cash,
    unless you happened to have an international bank account.

    Kitroeff is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York, covering
    business education.

    Source: Here’s What Happened in Cuba Today, and Why You Should Care –
    Businessweek –
    http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-12-17/heres-what-happened-in-cuba-today-and-why-you-should-care