USA announces 'historic' opening with Cuba

The first public show of thaw between the two old enemies was when US President Barack Obama (left) shook Cuban President Raul Castro's hand after his speech at the memorial for Nelson Mandela in the Johannesburg FNB Stadium, a year ago. (Supplied)

The first public show of thaw between the two old enemies was when US President Barack Obama (left) shook Cuban President Raul Castro's hand after his speech at the memorial for Nelson Mandela in the Johannesburg FNB Stadium, a year ago. (Supplied)

The United States announced a “historic” thaw in relations with Cuba, saying on Wednesday it would work to re-establish diplomatic ties with Havana and ease long-standing trade and travel sanctions.

Washington will re-establish an embassy in Havana “in the coming months”, a senior administration official said after a prisoner exchange between the two countries.

Obama was due to make a policy announcement at the White House in the afternoon. Cuban President Raul Castro was set to make a speech at the same time.

The pair spoke on Tuesday to discuss the plans for the release of US national Alan Gross and three Cubans held in the United States in exchange for a “US intelligence asset,” the official said.

“The president also made clear his intent to pursue these policy changes but also to continue our advocacy for human rights in Cuba,” the officials said. The United States imposed a trade embargo against Cuba – the Cold War foe closest to its shores – in 1960 and the two countries have not had diplomatic relations since 1961.

Cuban Five

Alan Gross, the US contractor freed after five years in jail in Cuba, was swapped for three Cubans imprisoned in the United States as spies, a senior US administration official said Wednesday.

The official said it was a “swap with intel assets,” acknowledging that the assets were the three Cubans serving US prison terms for espionage. The three were the remaining members of the so-called “Cuban Five”, a network of spies arrested in 1998 and convicted in 2001.

The three still in prison at the time of the swap were Gerardo Hernandez, Antonio Guerrero and Ramon Labanino.
The two others – Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez – returned to Cuba in February 2014 and April 2013 respectively.

Among other things, the five were accused of infiltrating a Cuban exile group, “Brothers to the Rescue”, which flew private planes over the Florida Straits to look for people fleeing the island by boat. Information relayed by the group allegedly led to the 1996 shootdown of two of the group’s aircraft by Cuban fighter aircraft, killing four people.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis played a vital role in bringing Cuba and the United States to the negotiating table, making a “personal appeal” to the nations’ leaders, a US official said.

The pontiff “sent that letter directly to President Obama, and separately he communicated through a letter directly to President Castro early this summer,” a move that gave “greater impetus and momentum” in the process to normalize relations, the senior administration official said. – (Sapa-AFP)

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