US, Cuba seek to normalize relations

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States and Cuba have agreed to establish diplomatic relations and open economic and travel ties, marking the most significant shift in U.S. policy toward the communist island in decades, American officials said Wednesday.

The announcement comes amid a series of new confidence-building measures between the longtime foes, including the release of American Alan Gross, as well as a swap for a U.S. intelligence asset held in Cuba and the freeing of three Cubans jailed in the U.S.

President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro were to separately address their nations around noon Wednesday. The two leaders spoke by phone for more than 45 minutes Tuesday, the first substantive presidential-level discussion between the U.S. and Cuba since 1961.

Wednesday’s announcements follow more than a year of secret talks between U.S. and Cuban officials in Canada and the Vatican. U.S. officials said Pope Francis was personally engaged in the process and sent separate letters to Obama and Castro this summer urging them to restart relations.

Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly on the record ahead of Obama’s remarks.

Gross, 65, was on an American plane bound for the U.S. Wednesday after being released on humanitarian grounds after more than five years in prison. He was accompanied by his wife, Judy, along with three congressional lawmakers.

As part of the resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba, the U.S. will soon reopen an embassy in the capital of Havana and carry out high-level exchanges and visits between the governments. The U.S. is also easing travel bans to Cuba, including for family visits, official U.S. government business, and educational activities, through tourist travel remains banned.

The U.S. is also increasing the amount of money Americans can send to Cubans from $500 to $2,000 per quarter, or every three months. Early in his presidency, Obama allowed unlimited family visits by Cuban-Americans and removed a $1,200 annual cap on remittances. Secretary of State John Kerry is also launching a review of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terror.

 

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

 

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