Leaders of the US and Cuba have agreed to restore diplomatic relations and plan to open embassies in each other's capitals, officials from the Obama administration said on Wednesday.
Over the phone, US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro finalized negotiations which have been taking place for over a year. Administration officials said the phone call lasted for over 45 minutes. Wednesday's was the first substantial talk between leaders of the two countries since 1961.
"It was the first engagement at the presidential level with Cuba since the Cuban revolution," an official speaking on condition of anonymity told dpa news agency.
The announcement comes just hours after the release of a US citizen from prison in Havana. A US official said on Wednesday that Alan Gross had been released for humanitarian reasons. The 65-year-old was arrested in Cuba in December 2009 while working as a subcontractor for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which has been accused of trying to incite dissent and political change in Cuba through clandestine programs.
He was put on trial and received a sentence of 15 years in prison, of which he has served five.
Gross was said to be in poor health, having lost over 100 pounds during his five years of incarceration, with severe hip pain and loss of sight in one eye.
Last month, he was visited by two US senators. After the visit, Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona and Democrat Tom Udall of New Mexico told reporters on November 11 they were confident they were closer to Gross' release from prison. They did not give any indication that an agreement between the US and Cuba had been reached.
The US had repeatedly called on Havana to release Gross, but Cuba wanted to see the release of three Cuban nationals currently in US prisons for espionage as well.
Covert US dissent programs in question
The senators' optimism over the release of Gross came a day after the US State Department announced it was reviewing some of its secretive, political, democracy promotion programs in hostile countries, i.e. ones where such programs are not welcomed.
That announcement followed an investigation by the Associated Press (AP) this year into work by USAID, which, among other things, "established a Twitter-like service in Cuba [ZunZuneo] and secretly sought to recruit a new generation of dissidents there while hiding ties to the US government." An August investigation by AP also found that the agency had sent Latin youth to Cuba disguised as tourists to "scout for people they could turn into activists" on the island.
The proposed policy for USAID, according to AP, would prohibit the agency from spending money on democracy programs in countries that reject the agency's assistance and where USAID would have to go to "excessive lengths to protect program beneficiaries and participants."
Some of the agency's high-risk democracy efforts would be shifted to other agencies. The changes would, for example, prevent USAID from running such programs as ZunZuneo, which sought to encourage dissent and political change and in the end had 40,000 followers who had no idea it was a US government program, as funding for the site had been channeled through the Cayman Islands.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, however, did not elaborate on any new plans for USAID, saying it would be "premature."
"We continue to believe we need to find creative ways to promote positive change in Cuba, but beyond that, we're still assessing what any change or what any impact would be," she said.
USAID in a statement said it would continue to carry out democracy initiatives in "politically restrictive environments," AP reported. But the Obama administration failed to answer the question of how the agency's pro-democracy work could be continued in Cuba if it was illegal there.
sb/bw (dpa, AFP, AP)