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Obama's Second Term

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U.S.-Cuba Rapprochement in the Offing

December 17th 2014

Alan Gross and Judy Gross

President Obama will announce Wednesday that the U.S. is beginning talks with Havana to normalize full diplomatic relations with Cuba following the release of a U.S. prisoner jailed for five years by the country. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in a press release hailed the decision to seek a normalization of relations with Cuba, while The Associated Press reported the U.S. would use the talks to open an embassy in the island nation. “Opening the door with Cuba for trade, travel, and the exchange of ideas will create a force for positive change in Cuba that more than 50 years of our current policy of exclusion could not achieve,” Durbin said in his release.

Obama is expected to deliver a statement at noon from the White House.

The Obama administration's decision to seek a normalization of relations with Cuba is sure to set off a firestorm of debate with Congress and in the Cuban population in Florida, a crucial state in any presidential election. Some Cuban hard-liners were already criticizing the reported release of Cuban prisoners in exchange for Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development worker who has been in a Cuban jail for the past five years.

Gross was released Wednesday and is headed back to the United States, a senior administration official said. “This morning, Alan Gross has departed Cuba on a U.S. government plane bound for the United States,” the official said. “Mr. Gross was released on humanitarian grounds by the Cuban government at the request of the United States." Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) are aboard the plane returning Alan Gross to the U.S., according to a congressional aide. The U.S. agreed to free three Cuban agents convicted of spying on anti-Castro organizations in Miami, according to ABC News.

Gross's release appeared to be a cornerstone of the new talks between Cuba and the United States. The release came a week after press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement that Gross’s continued detainment was an “impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba.” Gross, imprisoned when it was discovered he helped to set up Internet access for a small Jewish community in the communist nation, was reportedly freed as part of a prisoner swap. Antony Blinken, the president’s former deputy national security adviser, who was confirmed Tuesday for the No. 2 job at the State Department, refused to rule out in his confirmation hearing last month a further loosening of sanctions and the embargo on Cuba if the Castro regime freed Gross.

“The president has views on how to try to move, help move Cuba in a democratic direction, to help support people moving in that direction, and, you know, if he has an opportunity, I’m sure that’s something he would want to pursue,” Blinken said. “But it depends on Cuba and the actions that they take.” Gross’s health had deteriorated in recent months, and his family reported he had lost more than 100 pounds, five teeth and sight in his right eye. A lawyer for the family had warned that Gross could undertake a fatal hunger strike if he was not released soon. In a statement issued earlier this month, Gross’s wife, Judy, said he had “paid a terrible price for serving his country and community.” “Alan is resolved that he will not endure another year imprisoned in Cuba, and I am afraid that we are at the end,” she said. “After five years of literally wasting away, Alan is done. It is time for President Obama to bring Alan back to the United States now; otherwise it will be too late.”

Some critics had charged that the White House has undermined efforts to secure Gross’s release by loosening restrictions on travel to the communist nation, allowing Cuban-Americans to make unlimited trips and send unlimited amounts of money to family members. In 2011, the White House said it would allow students seeking academic credit and churches making religious trips to visit the island, and the administration expanded the number of U.S. airports permitted to offer charter service to Cuba.

Obama also came under fire for shaking hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at the funeral for South African leader Nelson Mandela last December. In his interview last week, Obama defended the changes, saying they had “been helpful to the people inside Cuba.” “But the Cuban government still needs to make significant changes,” he said.

Justin Sink writes for The Hill, from where this article is adapted.

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