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Cuba, US free detainees in surprise prisoner swap

© CBS News

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-12-18

US citizen Alan Gross was freed from a Cuban prison after five years Wednesday as part of a prisoner swap agreement, US officials said. News of the deal comes as both governments said their leaders would make statements starting at 5pm (GMT).

Cuban leader Raul Castro will address the nation on relations with the United States, Cuban state TV reported. US President Barack Obama will make a statement on Cuba at the same time, the White House said.

Reuters cited US officials as saying that Obama will announce a shift in US policy towards Cuba that could include talks on normalising full diplomatic relations, the most significant shift in policy towards the communist island in decades.

Officials said Gross was on a US government plane bound for the United States on Wednesday morning after being released on humanitarian grounds by the Cuban government at the request of the Obama administration.

Obama administration officials have long considered Gross’s imprisonment an impediment to improving relations with Cuba, and the surprise deal could clear the way for broader discussions on strengthening ties and perhaps ending the decades-long US economic embargo on communist Cuba.

Negotiations on Gross’s release lasted about a year and the Vatican played a role, said Democratic Senator Richard Durbin. Durbin met with Gross in Cuba in 2012 during his imprisonment.

“Opening the door with Cuba for trade, travel, and the exchange of ideas will create a force for positive change in Cuba that more than 50 years of our current policy of exclusion could not achieve,” Durbin said in a statement on his website.

The prisoner exchange included the release of a US intelligence source and the United States releasing three Cuban intelligence agents, CNN reported. A senior US administration official confirmed to AFP that the swap included "intel assets".

The UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly – for the 23rd time – in October to condemn the decades-long US economic embargo against Cuba, with many nations praising the island state for its response in fighting the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa.

Cuba arrested Gross, now 65, in December 2009 for distributing communications equipment to members of the island's Jewish community while working as a contractor for the US Agency for International Development.

He was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2011 after being convicted of "acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the Cuban state".

The US has, in turn, released three Cubans jailed for espionage in 2001. The men received a hero’s welcome in Havana on Wednesday and words of welcome from Castro.

“The enormous joy of their families and of all our people, who have relentlessly fought for this goal, is shared by hundreds – of solidarity committees and groups, governments, parliaments, organisations, institutions and personalities – who, for the last sixteen years, have made tireless efforts demanding their release,” the Cuban president said.

The US-based pro-democracy group, the Washington Office on Latin America, had advocated in favour of the prisoner swap, arguing that Gross’s life was at risk and pointing to precedents in US-Cuban relations. Exchanges of alleged spies and activists detained in both countries took place in 1963 and 1979, WOLA noted.

The prisoner swap promises to be divisive, however, even among Democrats. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, expressed disappointment that Obama released three Cubans imprisoned on espionage charges in exchange for Gross's release.

"Let's be clear, this was not a 'humanitarian' act by the Castro regime," Menendez said.

"It was a swap of convicted spies for an innocent American."

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)

 

Date created : 2014-12-17

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