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President Obama calls it the most significant change in U.S. policy toward Cuba in more than half-a-century. In a stunning move today, he laid out plans for a diplomatic rapprochement with Havana.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:
We will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries.
The president appeared in the Cabinet Room of the White House to make his momentous announcement. By executive action, he is reestablishing diplomatic ties with Cuba. He also means to open an embassy in Havana, expand economic ties with the communist island, and ease the ban on travel for family, government business and educational purposes.
I do not expect the changes I'm announcing today to bring about a transformation of Cuban society overnight, but I am convinced that, through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century.
Mr. Obama finalized the deal after speaking at length with Cuban President Raul Castro yesterday. It was the first significant discussion between presidents of the U.S. and Cuba since 1961.
Today, in his own televised address, Castro welcomed the thaw, while cautioning there is much still to be resolved.
PRESIDENT RAUL CASTRO, Cuba (through interpreter):
In recognizing that we have profound differences in the areas of national sovereignty, democracy, human rights, and foreign policy, I reaffirm our willingness to discuss all of these matters.
The renewal of relations followed a year of secret talks between U.S. and Cuban officials in Canada and at the Vatican. The first concrete step was a prisoner swap that took place this morning. The U.S. released three Cuban agents convicted in 2001 of spying on military installations.
Cuba freed an unnamed American agent, and Alan Gross, a civilian contractor jailed since 2009 for setting up Internet access that bypassed Cuban censors. Gross was flown, with his wife, to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and spoke to reporters in Washington.
ALAN GROSS, Released American:
To all those who tried to visit me, but were unable to, thank you for trying. I'm at your service as soon as I get some new teeth, and I hope that they will be strong and sharp enough to make a difference.
All of this marks a break with decades of hostility between the U.S. and Cuba. It began in 1959, when Fidel Castro and his brother Raul led a revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. Castro nationalized U.S.-owned companies and allied his communist regime with the Soviet Union.
President Dwight Eisenhower responded by cutting all ties with Cuba in 1961 and imposing the embargo. A few months later came the Bay of Pigs, the failed CIA attempt to overthrow Castro, and then the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when the discovery of nuclear missiles in Cuba almost plunged the U.S. and the Soviet Union into nuclear war. And in 1980, in the Mariel boatlift, Castro freed thousands of prisoners, and put them on boats to Florida.
Looking back today, President Obama said the policy of isolating Cuba has not worked, and he singled out the longstanding U.S. economic embargo.
And though this policy has been rooted in best of intentions, no other nation joins us in imposing these sanctions. And it has had little effect, beyond providing the Cuban government with a rationale for restrictions on its people.
Lifting the embargo is subject to action by Congress, and the White House said it hopes lawmakers will agree to go along. Most Democrats praised the president's moves, but most Republicans decried them, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, whose parents left Cuba before Castro took control. He spoke to ABC News.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO, (R) Florida: What I'm interested in is freedom and democracy. The Cubans haven't agreed to any of that. There won't be elections in Cuba. There won't be political parties. There won't be freedom of the press, freedom to organize. None of these things are happening. And they won't happen just because people can buy Coca-Cola.
And prospective GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida, said he, too, opposes the move to normalize relations with Cuba.
We will talk to supporters and opponents of the president's new policy right after the news summary.
When this story aired on Dec. 17, it noted that Sen. Marco Rubio's "parents fled Castro's rule." While the Senator had previously made that claim, he has since clarified that while his family is from Cuba, they arrived in the United States 2 ½ years before Fidel Castro's forces wrested power in 1959. The language of the transcript has been adjusted above.
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