Obama hails ‘new chapter’ in relations with Cuba

Castro praises policy changes as US president plans to end ‘outdated’ 50-year isolation

President Barack Obama announced a move to normalise relations between the United States and Cuba on Wednesday, saying it is time to "cut loose the shackles of the past." Video: Reuters

 

President Barack Obama has announced the “most significant” shift in US foreign policy towards Cuba in more than a half century, unveiling plans to normalise relations and re-establish economic ties.

In a televised address announcing the historic change, Mr Obama declared an end to an “outdated approach” over five decades of isolation for the communist island, saying the two countries would restore diplomatic relations ended in the early days of the Cold War in 1961 and re-open their embassies in Havana and Washington.

“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” he said. “It’s time for a new approach.”

Hailing a “new chapter” in relations, Mr Obama proclaimed the 54-year-old American trade embargo of the Caribbean island a failure, saying that his administration would move beyond a “rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

Cuban President Raul Castro told his own people in a simultaneous address that profound differences existed between the two countries on issues such as human rights and foreign policy, but that they had to learn live with their differences “in a civilised manner.”

In a landmark moment for a Cuban leader, Mr Raul, brother of former president Fidel Castro, a target of multiple US assassination attempts, praised an American president, saying that Mr Obama’s policy change “deserves respect.”

The thaw in relations began when a US contractor Alan Gross imprisoned by Cuba for five years was freed on humanitarian grounds. A prisoner swap was also agreed as three Cuban spies were released in exchange for an American spy who had been in prison for 20 years.

Mr Obama said he had spoken to his Cuban counterpart by telephone on Tuesday, marking the first contact between presidents of the countries since the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s.

They agreed to end decades of hostility in a move that will ease banking and commercial restrictions, and allow American tourists to travel to the island 90 miles off the Florida coast and import products including, for example, up to $100 worth of Cuban cigars.

Mr Obama noted the roles played by Canada in hosting 18 months of secret talks and the crucial intervention of Pope Francis.

Two senators, both sons of Cuban immigrants – Marco Rubio, a Republican, and Bob Menendez, a Democrat – berated the president for agreeing the deal with the island’s communist leader.

Describing Mr Obama as the “worst negotiator” ever to occupy the White House, Mr Rubio said that the president’s move did nothing to further the cause of democracy and freedom in Cuba.

“It’s part of a long record of coddling dictators and tyrants,” he said.