President Barack Obama is ordering a review of Cuba's listing as a state sponsor of terrorism, part of the major U.S. shift in Cuban policy announced Wednesday.
The watershed announcement to restore diplomatic ties and promote trade came with the release of American prisoner Alan Gross after five years in a Cuban prison, as well as the release of a U.S. intelligence agent in the country.
"This review will be guided by the facts and the law. Terrorism has changed in the last several decades," Obama said Wednesday. “At a time when we are focused on threats from Al Qaeda to ISIL, a nation that meets our conditions and renounces the use of terrorism should not face this sanction."
In this Dec. 10, 2013 file image from TV, President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at the FNB Stadium in Soweto, South Africa, in the rain for a memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela. Obama on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014 declared the end of America's "outdated approach" to Cuba, announcing the re-establishment of diplomatic relations as well as economic and travel ties with the communist island — a historic shift in U.S. policy that aims to bring an end to a half-century of Cold War enmity. (AP/SABC Pool, File)
Cuba has been listed as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1982.
Under Wednesday's policy announcement, the U.S. will re-establish an embassy in Havana in the coming months; will permit limited travel to and from Cuba; and will seek to promote exports and imports between the two countries. Obama said the United States will still press for greater human rights and free speech.
Obama said the policy of isolation imposed in 1961 was “rooted in the best of intentions, but has not had the desired effect of bringing more freedom to Cuba."
“Where we disagree, we will raise those differences directly, as we will continue to do on issues related to democracy and human rights in Cuba,” Obama said. “But I believe that we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagements. After all, these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It's time for a new approach.”
The overall U.S.-Cuba embargo must still be lifted through an act of Congress; Obama said he "will engage with Congress in honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo." After Obama's announcement, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told reporters there was no chance of that happening.
The president said Pope Francis made a "personal appeal" to both him and Cuban leader Raul Castro about restoring relations.
“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,” the president said.
A statement form the Vatican expressed support for the movement by the two countries.
“The Holy Father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history,” the Vatican statement said.
Pope Francis had written letters to both Obama and Castro, and worked toward bringing the two sides together.
“The Holy See received delegations of the two countries in the Vatican last October and provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both Parties,” the statement said. “The Holy See will continue to assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the wellbeing of their respective citizens.”
Secretary of State John Kerry will immediately initiate discussions with the Castro's governors. State Department diplomats will lead a team into the country in January.
Under the policy shift, there will be an expansion of travel under the 12 existing categories for Americans authorized travel to Cuba. The existing categories include family visits, journalistic activity, humanitarian projets and educational activities; under the changes, Americans seeking to provide business training for private Cuban businesses and for promoting private entrepreneurship will face fewer hurdles to travel there.
Obama said the policy would focus on expanding trade between the countries.
Certain building materials for private residential construction, goods for use by private sector Cuban entrepreneurs, and agricultural equipment for small farmers will be authorized for exporting into Cuba under the new policy. Further, licensed U.S. travelers may import $400 worth of Cuban products, though no more than $100 may be in tobacco products, as Cuba is known for its famous cigars.
This post has been updated.