Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Obama hails 'new chapter' in US-Cuba ties

Obama hails 'new chapter' in US-Cuba ties

Barack Obama
US President Barack Obama has hailed a "new chapter" in US relations with Cuba, announcing moves to normalise diplomatic and economic ties.

Mr Obama said the plans represented the "most significant changes in US policy towards Cuba in 50 years".

The US is looking to open an embassy in Havana in the coming months, he said.

The moves are part of a deal that saw the release of American Alan Gross by Cuba and includes the release of three Cubans jailed in Florida for spying.

Mr Gross arrived at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington from Cuba on Wednesday. Footage showed him disembarking from a US government plane onto the tarmac where he was met by a crowd.

Image from Twitter of Alan Gross disembarking from plane. 17 December 2014 
 Mr Gross, facing the camera in a blue shirt, flew back from Cuba on a US government plane
Obama and Castro Obama and Castro met a year ago at the Nelson Mandela funeral
The 65-year-old spent five years behind bars after being accused of subversion, for trying to bring internet services to communities in Cuba.

He was freed on humanitarian grounds.

His arrest and imprisonment had undermined attempts to thaw diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The US president announced measures that he said would end an "outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests".

The plans set out in a White House statement also includes:
  • Reviewing the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism
  • Easing a travel ban for US citizens
  • Easing financial restrictions
  • Increasing telecommunications links
  • Efforts to lift the 54-year-old trade embargo
Alan Gross
Obama and Castro Obama and Castro met a year ago at the Nelson Mandela funeral
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Analysis by Vanessa Buschschluter, Latin America editor
The detention of Alan Gross had for years been a major hurdle on the path to closer ties between Cuba and the US.

His release allows the US to "cut loose the anchor of the past", as the Obama administration put it.
Washington had held out the prospect of full diplomatic ties within months, but ordinary Cubans are going to be more interested in the economic measures the US government has promised.

Raising remittances levels from $500 (£320) to $2,000 a quarter could make a real difference to the livings standards of those Cubans with relatives and friends living in the US.

And allowing telecom firms to improve internet services in Cuba would also make a tangible change to a country which has one of the lowest rates of internet penetration in the world.

But Cubans critical of the government have slammed the Obama administration for "swallowing the hook" and allowing Raul Castro to score a political victory on the back of Mr Gross's years in jail.

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The three Cubans released in the US are part of the so-called "Cuban Five" convicted of spying.
Prosecutors said they had sought to infiltrate US military bases and spied on Cuban exiles in Florida.
Two of them had recently been allowed to return to Cuba after finishing their sentences.

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Key dates
2001: Five Cubans, dubbed the Cuban Five, are convicted in Miami and given long sentences for spying for the Cuban government. Their case becomes a rallying cry for the Havana government
2008: Raul Castro officially takes over as Cuban president. Washington calls for free and fair elections, and says its trade embargo will remain
Dec 2009: US citizen Alan Gross detained in Cuba accused of spying for Washington
Oct 2011: One of the Cuban Five, Rene Gonzalez, is freed as scheduled from a Florida jail
Dec 2013: US President Barack Obama and Raul Castro shake hands at Nelson Mandela's funeral - the first such public gesture since the 1959 revolution
Feb 2014: The second of the Cuban Five, Fernando Gonzalez, is freed after completing his sentence
17 December 2014: Alan Gross is released by Cuba after five years in captivity