Obama announces US will establish embassy in Cuba, lift sanctions

US President Barack Obama (AFP Photo / Saul Loeb)

United States President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the US is initiating plans to rebuild its relationship with Cuba following decades of disputes between the two nations.

Speaking from the White House in Washington, DC, Pres. Obama said Wednesday that the US is seeking to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and soon plans to open an embassy in Havana, authorize sales and exports between nations and make changes to current travel laws that for decades have restricted traffic between the two countries.

“Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba,” Obama said as he offered to “extend a hand of friendship” while unveiling what he called “the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years.”

“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interest,” Obama said.

Raúl Castro, the president of Cuba, announced in a statement televised concurrently with Obama’s that his nation will “reestablish diplomatic relations” with the US.

Cuban President Raul Castro. (AFP Photo/Yamil Lage)

Cuban President Raul Castro. (AFP Photo/Yamil Lage)

Since the administration of Pres. John F. Kennedy in the 1960s, restrictions and sanctions have kept the American and Cuban ways of life from all but converging policies put in place at the dawn of the Cold War in an attempt to curb the spread of Communism.

Yet Obama said Wednesday that, while rooted in the best of intentions, this “rigid policy” has “had little effect” a half-century later. Indeed, Obama acknowledged, a Castro still sits atop the Cuban government as during the Kennedy administration, and that similar restraints concerning how the US dealt with China and Vietnam, “once controversial,” have long been lifted following decades of disagreements.

This is fundamentally about freedom and openness, and also expresses my belied in the power of people-to-people engagement,” Obama said of the policy change, adding that he intends such “contact will ultimately do more to empower the Cuban people.”

AFP Photo/Cubadebate.cu/Ismael Francisco

AFP Photo/Cubadebate.cu/Ismael Francisco

READ MORE: USAID head resigns as US & Cuba plan ‘normalizing’ relations

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, will soon begin discussions with Cuban representatives, the White House said; in April an official from Havana will be welcomed to attend the annual Summit of Americas.

The announcements on Wednesday occurred only hours after it was revealed that Alan Gross, an American citizen imprisoned in Cuba for the last five years, had been released on humanitarian grounds, along with a US intelligence official who has similarly been detained for 20 years. On its part, the US has released three individuals from the so-called “Cuban Five” who had until now been imprisoned.

US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy signs the order of naval blockade of Cuba, on October 24, 1962 in White House, Washington DC, during the Cuban missiles crisis. (AFP Photo)

US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy signs the order of naval blockade of Cuba, on October 24, 1962 in White House, Washington DC, during the Cuban missiles crisis. (AFP Photo)

READ MORE: Obama to announce major Cuba policy change, US may open embassy

Announcements from the Obama and Castro offices came only hours after the head of the US Agency for International Development, or USAID, announced plans to resign following a five-year term marred in recent months by scandals surrounding American efforts to influence Cuban youths.

The Russian Foreign Ministry expressed hope that Washington might finally realize the ineffectiveness of sanction pressure on other countries, as it eventually did in the case of Cuba.

“It is indicative that the US president has recognized the futility of years of trying to ‘isolate’ Cuba. We cannot but hope that Washington will be quick to realize the futility of similar sanctions pressure on other countries,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

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