The Times reports:
The United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century after the release of an American contractor held in prison for five years, American officials said Wednesday.
In a deal negotiated during 18 months of secret talks hosted largely by Canada and encouraged by Pope Francis, who hosted a final meeting at the Vatican, President Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba agreed in a telephone call to put aside decades of hostility to find a new relationship between the United States and the island nation just 90 minutes off the American coast.
The contractor, Alan Gross, boarded an American government plane bound for the United States on Wednesday morning, and the United States sent back three Cuban spies who had been in an American prison since 1981. American officials said the Cuban spies were swapped for a United States intelligence agent who had been in a Cuban prison for nearly 20 years, and said Mr. Gross was not technically part of the swap, but was released separately on “humanitarian grounds.”
In addition, the United States will ease restrictions on remittances, travel and banking relations, and Cuba will release 53 Cuban prisoners identified as political prisoners by the United States government. Although the decades-old American embargo on Cuba will remain in place for now, the administration signaled that it would welcome a move by Congress to ease or lift it should lawmakers choose to.
President Obama has made marginal changes to Cuban policy over the last few years, slightly loosening the restrictions, for instance, on remittances sent home sent by Cubans in the U.S. (Cuban domestic policy has also, marginally, liberalized: You can buy modern foreign cars now, and buy and sell real estate!)
The trade embargo between the U.S. and Cuba, however, cannot be lifted without congressional approval. President Obama may well push for Congress to loosen it, but the top Democrat on the Senate, Cuban-American Robert Menendez, is furious with the president’s announcement today and of course Republicans now control both chambers. The embargo, like almost any form of U.S. sanctions, had been up to the president until the 1990s, but a fiasco over President Clinton’s carrots-and-sticks approach to loosening the embargo led Congress to take control of the policy.