US and Cuba to 'normalise' relations, says Obama
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The United States will "immediately" begin talks with Cuba on the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, US President Barack Obama said Wednesday, marking a sea change in US policy that has seen ties suspended since January 1961.
"Isolation has not worked," Obama said. "It's time for a new approach."
Obama has instructed US Secretary of State John Kerry “to immediately begin discussions with Cuba to re-establish diplomatic relations”, which were suspended in January 1961.
“We will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalise relations between our two countries,” Obama said.
In the coming months, a US embassy will be re-established in Havana and high-level exchanges between the two governments will be initiated as part of the normalisation process.
Speaking as Obama delivered his speech from the White House, Cuban President Raul Castro said he welcomed the restoration of ties with the United States. In a national broadcast he said profound differences remain between Havana and Washington on areas such as human rights, foreign policy and questions of sovereignty. But he said the two countries must learn to negotiate their differences “in a civilised manner”.
“We propose to the government of the United States the adoption of mutual steps to improve the bilateral atmosphere and advance towards normalisation of relations between our two countries, based on the principles of international law and the United Nations Charter,” Castro said.
The White House said earlier in the day that the decision to suspend diplomatic ties for more than a half-century had failed to achieve the desired effect and in some ways had undercut US interests.
“It is clear that decades of US isolation of Cuba have failed to accomplish our enduring objective of promoting the emergence of a democratic, prosperous and stable Cuba,” the White House said in a statement ahead of the president's remarks. “At times, longstanding US policy towards Cuba has isolated the United States from regional and international partners, [and] constrained our ability to influence outcomes throughout the Western Hemisphere.”
The new relaxed rules will allow the United States to work with Cuba “on matters of mutual concern” including migration, counter-narcotics, environmental protection and human trafficking, the White House said.
Trade, travel restrictions eased
US restrictions will also be eased on those seeking to travel to and from the island nation, and for those Cuban-Americans seeking to send remittances to their families back home. The US began easing restrictions on visas, remittances and travel under the existing US embargo in 2011.
"We are taking steps to increase travel, commerce and the flow of information to and from Cuba," Obama said. "This is fundamentally about freedom and openness, and also expresses my belief in the power of people-to-people engagement."
The US plans to increase exports of certain US goods to Cuba, including commercial materials to establish a better telecommunications infrastructure, building materials and agricultural equipment. Cuba has an internet penetration of only about 5 percent, one of the lowest rates in the world, and the cost of telecommunications in Cuba is exorbitantly high while services remain extremely limited, the White House said.
"Unfortunately, our sanctions on Cuba have denied Cubans access to technology that has empowered individuals around the globe. So I’ve authorised increased telecommunications connections between the United States and Cuba," Obama said.
"I am convinced that, through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century."
The president went on to say that he had asked for a review of the current US policy on listing Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, which it has done since 1982.
And while the United States continues to seek improved human rights conditions and democratic reforms in Cuba, Obama said he sought a change in approach.
"The United States has supported democracy and human rights in Cuba through these five decades," Obama said, but it has done so with "policies that aim to isolate the island, preventing the most basic travel and commerce that Americans can enjoy anyplace else".
Although this policy was rooted in the best intentions, “it has had little effect beyond providing the Cuban government with a rationale for restrictions on its people”, Obama said.
The president will be seeking an “honest” debate with Congress about permanently lifting the embargo on Cuba in the future.
"Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people and begin a new chapter," he said.
Obama went on to cite Cuba’s imprisonment of Alan Gross, who was freed after five years’ detention earlier on Wednesday, as having been a “major obstacle” to improved relations.
He also hailed the release on the same day of “one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba” after nearly two decades in Cuba’s prisons. "This man is now safely on our shores," Obama said.
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 ... who, for the last sixteen years, have made tireless efforts demanding their release,” the Cuban president said.
Obama and Castro both thanked the government of Canada and Pope Francis for their help in negotiating the men's freedom.
"I want to thank His Holiness, Pope Francis, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be – rather than simply settling for the world as it is," Obama said.
Obama announces 'normalisation' of ties with Cuba