Obama says US restoring ties with Cuba

US president announces “new chapter” in ties with Havana five decades after diplomatic relations were severed.

(Aljasera) – The United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba more than 50 years after they were severed, US President Barack Obama has said, just hours after Havana announced it had released a US aid worker who had been jailed for five years in Cuba.

“Today the US is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba. We’ll begin to normalise relations between our two nations. Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people and begin a new chapter,” said Obama.

The US president said he had spoken to his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro on Tuesday about arrangements to release US aid worker Alan Gross, who was arrested in 2009 in Cuba and jailed for five years, on humanitarian grounds.

US media reported a prisoner exchange that also included Cuba releasing a US intelligence source and the US releasing three Cuban intelligence agents. 

Obama said he had instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to immediately initiate discussions with Cuba on the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, which were severed in 1961.

“In the coming months, we will re-establish an embassy in Havana and carry out high-level exchanges and visits between our two governments as part of the normalisation process,” Obama said.

“As an initial step, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs will lead the US Delegation to the next round of US-Cuba Migration Talks in January 2015, in Havana.”

Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane, reporting from Washington, said the trade embargo imposed on Cuba after ties were severed can only be lifted by Congress. 

“Senior administration officials tell me they don’t think Congress is going to lift the embargo. We have seen several members of Congress come out and call the president’s moves ‘outrageous’,” she said.

Cuban President Raul Castro said he welcomed the restoration of relations with the US.

In a nationally broadcast speech, the Cuban leader said profound differences remained between Cuba and the US in areas such as human rights, foreign policy and questions of sovereignty, but he said the two nations have to learn to live with their differences “in a civilised manner”.

The three Cubans released in a prisoner exchange that paved the way for a historic breakthrough in Havana’s Cold War standoff with Washington are celebrated as heroes back home. They are Gerardo Hernandez, 51; Ramon Labanino, 51; and Antonio Guerrero, 56.

The trio, who spent more than 15 years behind bars, were the last remaining prisoners from the “Cuban Five”, a group arrested in Miami in September 1998 and convicted in 2001 of spying for Cuba’s communist government.

Officials said Gross was freed on humanitarian grounds as his health is known to be failing.

Cuba arrested Gross in December 2009, and later convicted him to 15 years in prison for importing banned technology and trying to establish clandestine internet service for Cuban Jews.

His lawyers, as well as the US government, strongly denied he was involved in spying activities on the communist-ruled island.