PRESIDENT Barack Obama has announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba and declared an end to America’s “outdated approach” to the communist island in a historic shift aimed at ending a half-century of Cold War enmity.
“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” Mr Obama said in a speech from the White House. “It’s time for a new approach.”
As Mr Obama spoke to Americans, Cuban President Raul Castro addressed his own nation from Havana, saying that while the two countries still have profound differences in areas such as human rights and foreign policy, they must learn to live together “in a civilised manner”.
The announcement followed more than a year of secret talks between the US and Cuba, including clandestine meetings in Canada and the Vatican and personal involvement from Pope Francis.
Setting the stage for the diplomatic breakthrough, Cuba released American Alan Gross, who had been imprisoned for five years, and a Cuban who had spied for the US. In exchange, three Cubans jailed in Florida were released by the US.
Mr Gross spoke with Mr Obama from the plane carrying him home, then met Secretary of State John Kerry and later appeared before Washington reporters.
“This is game changing,” Mr Gross declared. He flashed a broad grin with missing teeth –lost during his imprisonment –after taking an admiring glance at the American flags posted behind him.
In Cuba, bells were rung and school children interrupted lessons to mark the historic news.
Mr Obama’s plans are sweeping: He aims to expand economic ties with Cuba, open an embassy in Havana, send high-ranking US officials to visit and review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. The US also is easing restrictions on travel to Cuba, including for family visits, official US government business and educational activities. But tourist travel remains banned.
Pope Francis “wishes to express his warm congratulations” for the efforts.