Originally published at Moral Low Ground 

Historic breakthrough announced after American prisoner Alan Gross, remaining members of “Cuban Five,” released in swap

The United States and Cuba have begun talks to fully normalize diplomatic relations after more than half a century of animosity stoked by a crippling embargo, US support for anti-Cuba terrorism and repeated attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro.

US officials told the Associated Press on Wednesday that the Obama administration and the Cuban government have agreed to establish diplomatic relations and to further ease economic and travel restrictions between the two long-estranged nations.

Addressing the nation and the world on Wednesday, President Barack Obama, who campaigned on a pledge to restore relations with Cuba, said it was time to “begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.”

“The United States is changing its relationship with with people of Cuba,” said 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 “We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries.”

“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” Obama said. “It’s time for a new approach.”

That “new approach” bore fruit on Tuesday when President Obama spoke by phone for 45 minutes with Cuban President Raúl Castro, the first communication between the two countries’ leaders since pre-Castro days. Their conversation finalized the details of Gross’ release, opening the door for Wednesday’s historic announcement.

The United States will open an embassy in Havana and work toward normalizing economic and travel relations between the two nations. Obama had already taken steps to loosen travel and remittance restrictions.

The president also said he looks forward to “engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo,” which has crippled Cuba’s economy since it was implemented during the Kennedy administration as part of a campaign of terrorism, assassinations and attempted coups, most infamously the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

Obama said that while the embargo is a “policy rooted in the best of intentions, no other nation joins us in imposing these sanctions.”

Last month, the United Nations General Assembly voted 188-2 to condemn Washington’s embargo of Cuba, the 23rd straight year the world body did so. Only Israel joined the United States in dissenting.

“I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result,” said Obama.

The Cuban government estimates the US blockade has cost the tiny island nation more than $67 billion since it was imposed in 1961.

In Havana, Cuban President Raúl Castro delivered a nationally televised speech in which he welcomed what appeared to be a momentous shift in US foreign policy. Castro called on the US to drop its demand for regime change and to pursue “civilized relations” with its neighbor and former colony.

“We do not ask the United States to change its political and social system, nor do we agree to negotiate over ours,” Castro said.

“If we really want to make progress in bilateral relations, we have to learn to respect each other’s differences and get used to living peacefully with them,” the dictator added. “Otherwise, no. We are ready for another 55 years like the last.”

The historic announcements out of Washington and Havana came as Alan Gross, an American who had been serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba after being convicted of “acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state” for allegedly smuggling satellite phones and computer equipment to Cuban Jews without government permission, was freed.

Gross served five years of his sentence. Cuban and US officials said he was being released on “humanitarian grounds.” Prominent international figures, including Pope Francis, had lobbied vigorously on the imprisoned American’s behalf.

The New York Times reports Gross was released as part of a prisoner exchange that saw the three remaining members of the “Cuban Five,” intelligence agents arrested in Florida more than 15 years ago while monitoring and infiltrating anti-Cuban terrorist groups, freed from US custody.

Additionally, Obama said that an American operative who was essential in the capture of the “Cuban Five” has been released by Havana.

Gross’ sister Bonnie Rubinstein told the Times she was “beyond ecstatic” at the news of his release.

“We are extremely grateful that he’s on his way home,” said Rubinstein. “It’s been a long ordeal.”

Gross’ health had been failing as he languished in Cuban prison. The 65-year-old reportedly lost 100 lbs. (160 kg.) and is going blind in one eye. He recently went on a nine-day hunger strike and told relatives he was considering killing himself if he was not released soon.

Cuban intelligence agents Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González and René González were arrested in Miami in 1998 while infiltrating US-based anti-Cuban terror groups and monitoring terrorists who had carried out deadly attacks against Cuba, including the 1976 bombing of Cubana Airlines Flight 455, the worst act of airborne terrorism in the Western hemisphere before 9/11.

The “Cuban Five” were tried and convicted in Miami and received sentences ranging from 15 years for René González to double life for Hernández. René González was paroled in 2011 and returned to Cuba two years later. Fernando González was released in February 2014. The five jailed agents were a cause célèbre in Cuba and beyond, viewed as personification of US hypocrisy and double standards regarding terrorism.

While the “Cuban Five” languished behind bars, for decades militant Cuban exile groups like Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations (CORU), Alpha 66, and Omega 7 terrorized the homeland they fled following Castro’s revolution, planning and executing scores of attacks against Cuban targets. The Cuban government claims 3,478 people were killed and another 2,099 wounded in these attacks, which spanned several decades.

Anti-Castro terror groups and their leading members and associates, including Luis Posada Carriles and the late Orlando Bosch, were lionized and protected by Florida’s Cuban exile population and their staunchly anti-communist elected leaders, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former President George H.W. Bush.

This infuriated Havana, which noted that the US had placed Cuba on its state sponsors of terrorism list in 1982, the same year in which Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was removed from the same list so that the Reagan administration could open the door for weapons — including components for chemical weapons that would later be used against both Iranian troops and Iraq’s own Kurds — and other aid to Baghdad.

As part of the newly-announced détente, Obama said that the United States would review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, one which nearly all observers outside the US believe is without merit.

In addition to attempting to overthrow Fidel Castro’s communist regime, the US, particularly the CIA, repeatedly tried to kill Castro himself. Some of Washington’s plots bordered on the fantastic — exploding cigars and seashells, poisoned pens and cigars, Mafia hit men, and even a ‘femme fatale’ lover/assassin were all unsuccessfully employed by successive US administrations trying to rid the world of Castro and his revolution.

The US also considered carrying out a series of devastatingly deadly ‘false-flag’ terrorist attacks against its own troops and cities, blaming Cuba as pretense for an American invasion and regime change.

It was this history that influenced Havana’s attitude toward Alan Gross, who worked for the US Agency for International Development (USAID). In addition to administering foreign aid, disaster and poverty relief, the notorious federal agency also oversaw secret programs aimed at fomenting regime change in Havana. In April, it was revealed that USAID secretly created a social media campaign there with the goal of stirring anti-regime action. Earlier this month, it emerged that USAID infiltrated Cuba’s burgeoning hip-hop scene in order to foment youth unrest.

Obama hinted at America’s hostile treatment of Cuba in his speech, noting that “it does not serve America’s interests or the Cuban people to try to push Cuba toward collapse.”

“That hasn’t worked for 50 years, [and] we know from hard-learned experience that countries are more likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to chaos,” said Obama.

But despite a generational shift in which younger Cuban-Americans increasingly favor engagement over estrangement with Cuba, Wednesday’s news was met with harsh criticism from some leading US conservatives, especially those from Florida or with ties to the island.

“This is going to do absolutely nothing to further human rights and democracy in Cuba,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) told the AP. “But it potentially goes a long way in providing the economic lift that the Castro regime needs to become permanent fixtures in Cuba for generations to come.”

The criticism was not limited to Republicans.

“Let’s be clear, this was not a ‘humanitarian’ act by the Castro regime, it was a swap of convicted spies for an innocent American,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ). “President Obama’s actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government.”