Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Obama to announce major Cuba policy overhaul; prisoners swapped

    Obama to announce major Cuba policy overhaul; prisoners swapped
    HAVANA/WASHINGTON Wed Dec 17, 2014 10:23am EST

    (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama was set to announce a shift in
    policy toward Cuba on Wednesday and the Associated Press reported the
    changes would include the opening of an embassy in Cuba and the start of
    talks to normalize relations.

    The shift in policy, which could be one of the biggest changes in
    decades of animosity between communist-ruled Cuba and the United States,
    was heralded by Cuba’s release of American aid worker Alan Gross after
    five years in prison in a reported prisoner exchange with Havana.

    Obama was due to make a statement at noon (5:00 p.m. GMT) on Cuba, the
    White House said, and a U.S. official said Obama would announce a shift
    in Cuba policy. Cuban President Raul Castro was also set to make a
    statement at that time.

    Citing U.S. officials, the AP said Washington planned to open an embassy
    in Cuba as part of its plan to launch talks and normalize relations.

    A senior congressional aide said Obama would ease the embargo and travel
    restrictions that prevent most Americans from visiting the island.

    The two countries have been ideological foes since soon after the 1959
    revolution that brought Raul Castro’s older brother, Fidel Castro, to
    power. Washington and Havana have no diplomatic relations and the United
    States has maintained a trade embargo on Cuba for more than 50 years.

    Washington’s policy has survived the end of the Cold War as the United
    States pushes for democratic reform in Cuba.

    The U.S. official said Gross was released on humanitarian grounds and
    left Cuba on a U.S. government plane bound for the United States. CNN
    reported a prisoner exchange that also included Cuba’s release of a U.S.
    intelligence source and the U.S. release of three Cuban intelligence agents.

    Cuba arrested Gross, now 65, on Dec. 3, 2009, and later sentenced him to
    15 years in prison for importing banned technology and trying to
    establish clandestine Internet service for Cuban Jews. Gross had been
    working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International
    Development (USAID).

    Whatever he announces in terms of a wider policy shift, Obama may well
    face criticism in Washington and within the Cuban exile community in
    Miami for freeing the Cuban intelligence agents after 16 years in
    prison. Their freedom will be hailed as a resounding victory at home for
    Raul Castro.

    The payoff for Obama was the release of Gross, whose lawyer and family
    have described him as mentally vanquished, gaunt, hobbling and missing
    five teeth.

    U.S. officials had long cited Cuba’s refusal to free Gross as one of the
    biggest impediments to improved relations and had held out the
    possibility that his release could open the door to such steps.

    Gross’s case raised alarm about USAID’s practice of hiring private
    citizens to carry out secretive assignments in hostile places. Cuba
    considers USAID another instrument of continual U.S. harassment dating
    back to Cuba’s 1959 revolution. Fidel Castro retired in 2008, handing
    power to his brother.

    Raul Castro has undertaken a series of economic reforms, but has
    maintained a one-party political system. The United States has said it
    wants to promote democracy in Cuba, where political opponents are
    repressed and the state controls the media.

    Steps by Obama toward normalizing relations with Cuba could stir
    opposition from some sectors of the large community of Cuban exiles, who
    have traditionally been politically well connected and well financed.

    (Writing by Frances Kerry; Editing by Howard Goller)

    Source: Obama to announce major Cuba policy overhaul; prisoners swapped
    | Reuters –