A woman walks under a Cuban flag on March 22, 2012 in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.
Credit: Spencer Platt


UPDATE: 12/17/14 6:23 PM ET

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Check the wires for the latest updates.

UPDATE: 12/17/14 6:00 PM ET

The White House statement on Cuba that nobody believes

The White House insisted Wednesday that its decision to give Cuba three of its spies back had nothing to do with Cuba’s decision to return Alan Gross back to the United States — a claim that was rejected as baloney by members of Congress, and was also revealed as untrue by the White House’s own spokesman.

More at The Blaze.

UPDATE: 12/17/14 5:48 PM ET

White House travel exemptions to Cuba do not cover tourism

President Barack Obama announced major changes in the United States’ 53-year embargo on communist Cuba Wednesday, but don’t pack your bags just yet. Tourism was not among the travel exemptions listed by the White House.

According to the Tico Times, direct flights from Costa Rica to Havana by the airline Cubana de Aviación restarted in November, but US expats and tourists who want to travel to Cuba via Costa Rica may still risk running afoul of the US stipulations.

The categories allowed to legally travel to Cuba now include:

1. Family visits
2. Official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
3. Journalistic activity
4. Professional research and professional meetings
5. Educational activities
6. Religious activities
7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
8. Support for the Cuban people
9. Humanitarian projects
10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
11. Exportation, importation or transmission

UPDATE: 12/17/14 5:42 PM ET

Obama says 'let's see' about a presidential visit to Cuba

Marking an abrupt sea change in US policy toward Cuba, President Obama said today he is open to visiting the communist Caribbean country before he leaves office.

“I don’t have any current plans, but let’s see how things evolve,” Obama told ABC “World News Tonight.”

UPDATE: 12/17/14 5:27 PM ET

Cubans also psyched, but not across the board

HAVANA — Stunned Cubans celebrated an apparent end to decades of conflict with the United States on Wednesday after both governments said they would restore diplomatic relations cut off in 1961.

In one student demonstration on a busy Havana street corner, about 100 people shut off traffic while motorists honked their horns. Neighbors peered out from their balconies, joining in the cheers.

"Long live Fidel! Long live Raul! Long live the revolution!" they chanted, in support of retired historic leader Fidel Castro, current President Raul Castro and the 1959 revolution that they led.


Still, other Cubans like car mechanic Jorge Guerra found it hard to believe that decades of hostility between Cuba and the United States were really ending.

"Hopefully it's true all of this, but I'm skeptical. There have been so many years of conflict, it's difficult to believe they're finally going to reach an agreement," said Guerra, visibly excited by the news. "Hope is the last thing you lose."

More at Reuters.

UPDATE: 12/17/14 5:06 PM ET

Thaw in relations won't affect baseball right away

There will be no immediate flow of top Cuban players into Major League Baseball despite the major US policy shift toward the communist-run island, experts told Reuters.

Any move to let Cuban players leave their country freely will not happen for at least several years, said author Pete Bjarkman, who has written extensively about Cuban baseball.

"I don't think it will have any real visible immediate impact," Bjarkman said of the policy change. "Cuba wants to maintain its strong baseball at home. It's got the only strong domestic league outside of Japan and MLB in the US."

UPDATE: 12/17/14 4:20 PM ET

The Pope is psyched!

Pope Francis led a chorus of global plaudits for Wednesday's breakthrough in US-Cuban relations which was hailed from Berlin to Bogota as "courageous" and "historic."

In a personal coup for the pope, it emerged that the Vatican had played a central role in bringing together the global capitalist superpower and the tiny communist island.

The Argentinian pontiff sent "warm congratulations" to the former arch-foes for their "historic decision... to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history."

AFP has more on what a nice birthday present this was for the Pope.

UPDATE: 12/17/14 3:36 PM ET

GlobalPost senior correspondent in Peru, Simeon Tegel, puts the news in context:

Arturo Lopez-Levy, a former political analyst for the Castro regime who now teaches politics at the University of Denver, backed Obama's calculation that phasing out the embargo was the best way to encourage democracy in Cuba.

"President Obama made clear his commitment to democracy and human rights today. Other than a few communists, not many Cubans will be bothered by that. Many of us [Cubans] can now look at the future without being slaves of the struggles of the past."

Lopez-Levy also suggested that the hardcore anti-Castro sentiment of many Cuban-Americans, such as as Sen. Marco Rubio, who says he will vote against any nominee for US ambassador to Havana, had lost touch, not just with life on the ground in Cuba but also with changing US priorities.

"Rubio is a demonstration of how the Cuban-American representation in Congress has been overtaken by history. They are stuck in the Cold War and actually believe that Cuba still presents a threat to the United States."

UPDATE: 12/17/14 2:46 PM ET

Gross freed in exchange for three Cubans: US official

Alan Gross, the US contractor freed after five years in jail in Cuba, was swapped for three Cubans imprisoned in the United States as spies, a senior US administration official told AFP Wednesday.

The official told AFP it was a "swap with intel assets," acknowledging that the assets were the three Cubans serving US prison terms for espionage.

UPDATE: 12/17/14 2:40 PM ET

Yes, those are Cuban cigars in my bag

There is now no more need to lie, see. 

Cuban cigars are about to become legal again in the US, reports the Huffington Post.

"President Barack Obama’s loosening of trade and diplomatic relations with Cuba, announced on Wednesday, includes a provision that lets American travelers to Cuba bring back $400 worth of Cuban goods, $100 of which can be tobacco and/or alcohol."

Where's the catch, you ask? You still can't sell those goods when you get back to the US. Still.

UPDATE: 12/17/14 2:32 PM ET

Who is the mystery man released alongside Alan Gross?

Five men are tasting freedom for the first time in years — including one Obama described as "one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba."

The still unidentified spy was sent home along with Alan Gross. He may be the only one who hasn't been named, and about whom least is known. 

He is a US intelligence agent who spent nearly 20 years in a Cuban prison before his release. But why?

Read more at CNN.

UPDATE: 12/17/14 2:26 PM ET

Who is Alan Gross?

The New York Times has a helpful Q and A on Alan Gross, starting with the basic:  

Q. Who is Alan Gross?

A. Alan P. Gross, 65, is a former government contractor from Maryland who was detained in Havana on Dec. 3, 2009, for delivering communications equipment to religious groups. Cuba sentenced Mr. Gross to 15 years in prison for plotting to “destroy the revolution” (distributing satellite communications equipment is illegal in Cuba). His imprisonment was a main point of contention between the American and Cuban governments.

UPDATE: 12/17/14 2:15 PM ET

Raul Castro to Obama: Thanks, Barack. Now end the sanctions

LIMA, Peru — For such a historic speech from a Castro, it was curiously short.

Cuban President Raul Castro spoke for just nine minutes, starting at noon Eastern time, to respond to the momentous changes being simultaneously unveiled by Barack Obama in Washington. 

Given that his famously verbose predecessor and brother Fidel’s longest speech was recorded at more than seven hours, one might have expected more. 

Maybe it was old age. Raul, after all is 83. And it showed, as he read slightly shakily on live TV from a clutch of paper notes. 

Nevertheless, in that short time, he did manage to cover enough ground to both graciously accept and rhetorically return the US olive branch with interest, while also insisting that the “heroic Cuban people” would continue to ferociously assert their island’s independence.

Read on from GlobalPost's Simeon Tegel's account of the Cuban leader's speech.

UPDATE: 12/17/14 1:30 PM ET

Castro's speech

The Washington Post has published the full text of Cuban President Raul Castro's speech, which happened to be at the same time as Obama's speech. Read it here.

UPDATE: 12/17/14 1:25 PM ET

Alan Gross to make a statement

Watch it live on NBC News at 1:30 p.m. ET:

UPDATE: 12/17/14 1:19 PM ET

Reactions from think tanks and advocacy groups in the US

This is from Ric Herrero, executive director of #CubaNow, an advocacy group based in Florida:

"Today, the President has taken major strides to update our Cuba policy so that it better meets the challenges of the 21st century. The changes are well within the President's authority, and will make it easier to support the Cuban people as they take ownership of their destiny and craft a more democratic and independent future for themselves."

This is from Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas, a policy organization based in New York:

"This bold move to change a five-decade-old foreign policy that has failed to produce any meaningful outcome is welcome. Far from being a concession, better access to telecommunications equipment, improved contacts with US citizens, and support to independent entrepreneurs will build the pockets of independence, which a half century of US-ordered isolation and the Castro regime’s repression have prevented."

UPDATE: 12/17/14 12:42 PM ET

The Vatican's statement on US-Cuba relations

Borzou Daragahi, Middle East and North Africa correspondent for the Financial Times, just shared the statement on Twitter:

UPDATE: 12/17/14 12:30 PM ET

Obama announces move to normalize relations between US and Cuba

Reuters — President Barack Obama announced a move to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba on Wednesday, saying it is time to "cut loose the shackles of the past."

In a speech at the White House, Obama said the thaw in relations after a five-decade freeze is being made after he determined the "rigid" and outdated policy of the past failed to have an impact on Cuba.

"Today we are making these changes because it is the right thing to do. Today America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past, so as to reach for a better future, for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere, and for the world," he said. He said the new policy will make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba.

Obama said he would also talk to members of the US Congress about lifting the US embargo on Cuba.

Pope Francis assisted in the thaw in relations by pressing for the release of American aid worker Alan Gross from Cuba, the president said. Obama thanked Canada for the role it played in hosting US-Cuban discussions.

UPDATE: 12/17/14 12:16 PM ET

Some key points from Obama's speech

We will have a full summary of the press conference soon, but in the meantime, here are some important points US President Barack Obama mentioned in his speech:

UPDATE: 12/17/14 11:55 AM ET

This news report from 1961 will show you why today's Cuba news is such a big deal (VIDEO)

GlobalPost's Timothy McGrath writes:

The US and Cuba haven't had normal diplomatic relations since 1961, after a series of escalating trade disputes and Fidel Castro's turn toward the Soviet Union. After that, it was all trade embargos and crazy assasination plots. When the countries need to talk to eachother, they have to talk through Switzerland.

So a normalization of diplomatic relations and the opening of two brand new embassies would be an absolutely huge, historic deal — if that's what Obama ends up announcing. 

For now, a reminder of what a big deal today could be. Check out this video news report from 1961 announcing that US and Cuba were going their separate ways.



UPDATE: 12/17/14 11:40 AM ET

Obama to deliver statement on release of Alan Gross

Watch it live on NBC News at noon ET:

UPDATE: 12/17/14 11:20 AM ET

Pope Francis helped resolve differences

UPDATE: 12/17/14 10:49 AM ET

Here's one perspective for scrapping the embargo

In October, The New York Times published an editorial calling for an end to the US embargo on Cuba.

"For the first time in more than 50 years, shifting politics in the United States and changing policies in Cuba make it politically feasible to re-establish formal diplomatic relations and dismantle the senseless embargo," the editorial board wrote, adding, "Mr. Obama should seize this opportunity to end a long era of enmity and help a population that has suffered enormously since Washington ended diplomatic relations in 1961, two years after Fidel Castro assumed power."

UPDATE: 12/17/14 10:30 AM ET

Major shift in Cuba-US relations

Reuters — US President Barack Obama was set to announce a shift in policy toward Cuba on Wednesday and the Associated Press reported the changes would include the opening of an embassy in Cuba and the start of talks to normalize relations.

The shift in policy, which could be one of the biggest changes in decades of animosity between communist-ruled Cuba and the United States, was heralded by Cuba's release of American aid worker Alan Gross after five years in prison in a reported prisoner exchange with Havana.

Obama was due to make a statement at noon (5:00 p.m. GMT) on Cuba, the White House said, and a US official said Obama would announce a shift in Cuba policy. Cuban President Raul Castro was also set to make a statement at that time.

Citing US officials, the AP said Washington planned to open an embassy in Cuba as part of its plan to launch talks and normalize relations.

A senior congressional aide said Obama would ease the embargo and travel restrictions that prevent most Americans from visiting the island.

The two countries have been ideological foes since soon after the 1959 revolution that brought Raul Castro's older brother, Fidel Castro, to power. Washington and Havana have no diplomatic relations and the United States has maintained a trade embargo on Cuba for more than 50 years.

Washington's policy has survived the end of the Cold War as the United States pushes for democratic reform in Cuba.

The US official said Gross was released on humanitarian grounds and left Cuba on a US government plane bound for the United States. CNN reported a prisoner exchange that also included Cuba's release of a US intelligence source and the US release of three Cuban intelligence agents.

Cuba arrested Gross, now 65, on Dec. 3, 2009, and later sentenced him to 15 years in prison for importing banned technology and trying to establish clandestine Internet service for Cuban Jews. Gross had been working as a subcontractor for the US Agency for International Development (USAID).


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