Obama to announce major Cuba policy overhaul; prisoners swapped

Cuba has released American aid worker Alan Gross after five years in prison in a reported prisoner exchange with Havana that the United States said heralds an overhaul of U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Obama to announce major Cuba policy overhaul; prisoners swapped

World Bulletin/News Desk

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 (1700 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.

Güncelleme Tarihi: 17 Aralık 2014, 17:27