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Obama Moves to Normalize Relations With Cuba

Obama Moves to Normalize Relations With Cuba

By Alexis Simendinger - December 17, 2014

President Obama announced Wednesday his decision to establish -- without Congress -- diplomatic relations with Cuba, lifting restrictions on travel and trade in ways he hopes can advance human rights and democracy on the communist island just 90 miles from U.S. shores.

"Today we are making these changes because it is the right thing to do," Obama said in remarks from the Cabinet Room. "Today America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past, to reach for a better future for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere and for the world.”

Administration officials described months of secret discussions this year between the United States and Cuban government representatives -- talks encouraged by Pope Francis in personal letters of appeal written to Obama and President Raul Castro. The final agreement, which included a swap of three Cuban prisoners held in the United States for the freedom of a U.S.-allied intelligence agent held by the regime for nearly 20 years, was negotiated with help from Vatican representatives this fall, according to administration officials who spoke on background.

Related: Fact Sheet: Charting a New Course on Cuba

The release of American Alan Gross, imprisoned by the Cuban government for five years, took place Wednesday on “humanitarian grounds.” Gross, a former government contract worker the U.S. has long denied was a spy, flew back to the United States accompanied by his wife and senators from both parties. He was greeted by a congressional delegation when he landed at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, D.C., the administration said. 

Obama and Raul Castro spoke by phone Tuesday, officially dismantling a diplomatic wall erected between the United States and Cuba in 1961 in the wake of Fidel Castro’s overthrow of President Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

Obama and Raul Castro, brother of the longtime dictator, will meet in April as part of the annual Summit of the Americas, scheduled in Panama.

The president has argued for six years that U.S. policy towards Cuba has failed to elicit democratic changes or to expand human rights for the Cuban people -- goals his advisers said Obama pressed with Castro during their phone call.

“What I said and what I think my entire administration has acknowledged is that the policy that we've had in place for 50 years hasn't worked the way we want it to,” the president said barely three months after taking office in 2009. “The Cuban people are not free. And that's our lodestone, our North Star, when it comes to our policy in Cuba.”

The administration, including lawmakers from both parties, believe the hard-line attitude toward Cuba has eased as decades have ticked by, despite the Castro regime hanging on.

“There’s been a continued evolution in public opinion,” one administration official said, pointing to shifts in sentiment seen among younger Cuban-American voters in Florida and New Jersey during Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

“We believe openness is a better policy than isolation,” the official said.

Obama is making good on a campaign priority, but with the full expectation that he will meet with resistance in Congress and elsewhere, his advisers said. Establishing diplomatic relations is freighted with political importance for both parties in battleground states like Florida, where Jeb Bush is launching feelers for a presidential run and Sen. Marco Rubio may have similar aspirations, and in blue state New Jersey, home of potential White House aspirant Chris Christie.

With his executive announcement Wednesday, Obama forcefully challenged the Republican majorities in Congress head-on, as well as the GOP presidential field eyeing 2016. As potential Republican contestants weigh the landscape to succeed Obama, they will be pressed to stake out policy positions of interest to Latinos, including to Florida’s influential, and largely anti-Castro, Cuban-American voters.

Administration officials pointed to bipartisan support in Congress to end the trade embargo with Cuba, but noted that Obama is not asking the new GOP-led Congress to change existing law because “Congress is unlikely to take those steps.” Instead, the administration is moving expand commercial sales and exports from the United States, according to a fact sheet released by the White House.

The leadership and members of Congress were advised of Obama’s “policy shift,” administration officials said. “This is being done because we believe the policies of the past do not work,” one official said. “Our emphasis on human rights will be just as strong,” she added.

House Speaker John Boehner, in a statement released after Obama's remarks, described "reservations" about the president's announcement, while hailing Cuba's release of Alan Gross.

“Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom -- and not one second sooner," Boehner said. "There is no ‘new course’ here, only another in a long line of mindless concessions to a dictatorship that brutalizes its people and schemes with our enemies.  If anything, this emboldens all state sponsors of terrorism."

The next steps for the administration will be the establishment of a U.S. embassy in Havana and the issuance of regulations through the departments of Commerce and Treasury that will guide the start of U.S. sales of telecommunications equipment for phone and Internet service on the island, agricultural products, construction supplies, banking, and American travel in at least 12 broad categories, including family visits and business.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

Administration Fact Sheet: Changes in Relations With Cuba
RealClearPolitics Staff · December 17, 2014
A Win For the Cuban People
Eugene Robinson · December 18, 2014
Congressional Reaction Mixed to Cuba Policy Shift
Caitlin Huey-Burns · December 17, 2014

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