WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama declared the end of America’s “outdated approach” to Cuba Wednesday, announcing the re-establishment of diplomatic relations as well as economic and travel ties with the communist island — a historic shift in U.S. policy that aims to bring an end to a half-century of Cold War enmity.
“Isolation has not worked,” Obama said in remarks from the White House. “It’s time for a new approach.”
As Obama spoke, Cuban President Raul Castro was addressing his own nation from Havana. Obama and Castro spoke by phone for more than 45 minutes Tuesday, the first substantive presidential-level discussion between the U.S. and Cuba since 1961.
Wednesday’s announcement followed more than a year of secret talks between the U.S. and Cuba. The re-establishment of diplomatic ties was accompanied by Cuba’s release of American Alan Gross and the swap of a U.S. spy held in Cuba for three Cubans jailed in Florida.
American Alan Gross, 65, was held for five years in Cuba. He was a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) when he was detained. Cuba accused him of smuggling banned communications equipment into the country and sentenced him to 15 years in jail.
Gross has called himself a “trusting fool” for going to Cuba in the first place. He was arrested in 2009 while working in the Communist-run country to set up Internet access for the island’s small Jewish community, access that bypassed local restrictions and monitoring. Cuba considers USAID’s programs illegal attempts by the U.S. to undermine its government. Gross was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
During the five years he was imprisoned, family members said, Gross never grew angry at the Cuban people. He watched Cuban baseball and even jammed with his jailors on a stringed instrument they gave him. He kept in touch with family through weekly phone calls and passed the time reading books and magazines sent by his wife. The Economist, The Atlantic and Washingtonian were favorites.
But prison was tough on Gross. While in Cuban custody, he lost more than 100 pounds, developed problems with his hips and lost most of the vision in his right eye.
His mother, who was in her 90s, convinced him to start eating again. But she died in June 2014. Despite pleas from his family, Gross was not allowed to return to the United States for her funeral. After her death, he became withdrawn.
He vowed that his 65th birthday, which took place in May, would be the last one he celebrated in Havana, “one way or the other.”
On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the family said Gross and his wife walked hand-in-hand onto a military plane for the trip home. Onboard were bowls of popcorn, another thing he had missed, and a corned beef sandwich on rye. When the pilot announced they were leaving Cuban airspace, Gross stood up and took a deep breath.
His first telephone calls were two his two daughters.
“I’m free,” he told them.
Associated Press writers Jessica Gresko, Jack Gillum and Ken Dilanian contributed to this report.