The White House today announced plans to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba and ease a half-century old embargo on travel and commerce with the Communist nation, including trade in agricultural commodities and equipment.

The Obama administration announced the initiative as the Cuban government released American Alan Gross on humanitarian grounds. Gross, a subcontractor with the U.S. Agency for International Development, had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years on espionage charges. The 65-year-old Gross, who is said to be in poor health, arrived back in the U.S. this morning.

Following more than a year of high-level negotiations that involved the Vatican and Pope Francis, the U.S. also agreed to release three Cuban intelligence officers who had been convicted of spying charges in exchange for a U.S. intelligence asset who’d been jailed for two decades, senior administration officials said today. Cuba also agreed to free 53 people the U.S. considers political prisoners, some of whom have already been released, the officials said.

Obama, who spoke to Cuban President Raul Castro yesterday by phone for about an hour, said that while the U.S. embargo against Cuba was well-intentioned, it was also a failure.

“It is clear that decades of U.S. isolation of Cuba have failed to accomplish our enduring objective of promoting the emergence of a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba,” Obama said from the White House. “Though this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, it has had little effect — today, as in 1961, Cuba is governed by the Castros and the Communist party.”

As Obama spoke, Raul Castro, Fidel Castro’s brother, was also addressing his own people from Havana. His conversation with Obama a day earlier was the first substantive presidential-level discussion between the U.S. and Cuba since 1961.

Obama said he’s instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to immediately take steps to open an embassy in Havana. He also said he’s ordered a review of the U.S. listing of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.

In a fact sheet, the White House said the expansion of trade will “seek to empower the nascent Cuban private sector.” Items that will be authorized for export include agricultural equipment for small farmers and goods for use by private sector Cuban entrepreneurs. The White House officials also said the initiative will include easing of some of the rules restricting trade in agricultural goods, which have been allowed since the turn of the century but on a cash-only basis.

Despite the restrictions, the U.S. sold almost $349 million in agricultural goods to Cuba last year – mostly chicken meat, soybeans and corn -- after reaching a high of $710 million in 2008.

The White House also said it would:

--Work with Cuba on improving human rights and democratic reforms, along with issues such as migration, counternarcotics, environmental protection and human trafficking.

--Ease travel restrictions on categories including journalism, professional research, educational activities, religious activities, public performances and athletic competitions. Obama had lifted some travel restrictions between the two countries in 2013.

--Raise the limit of money Americans can send to Cuban nationals from $500 to $2,000 per quarter.

--Allow Americans to import $400 worth of goods from Cuba, of which no more than $100 can consist of alcohol and tobacco products, including Cuba cigars, and only for personal consumption.

Critics of Obama’s Cuba policy are well-positioned to block his attempt to open an embassy in Havana. An ambassadorial nomination would have to go through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Robert Menendez of New Jersey will be the ranking Democrat. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is a member of the panel. The senators – both Cuban-Americans -- slammed Obama’s moves. They “vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government,” said Menendez.

Moreover, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who will be the Majority Leader in the 114th Congress, told The Associated Press Wednesday that he would defer to Rubio on U.S.-Cuba policy.

Getting funding for the embassy also will be challenging. The likely incoming chairman of the Senate State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., announced on his Twitter feed that he would "do all in my power" to block such spending.  House GOP appropriator Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., another Cuban-American, also would likely be an obstacle.

Rep. Michael Conaway, the Texas Republican who will become chair of the House Agriculture Committee in January, issued a strongly worded statement against Obama’s plan. He said the agreement was a “poorly negotiated deal” for America and the Cuban people.

“We have given up significant leverage in exchange for few tangible benefits for our country or the average Cuban.  As far as I can see, this deal makes no significant gains on either democratization or increasing respect for human rights in a country where the government controls every single aspect of life.”

Conaway said he’s been a supporter of relaxing trade restrictions with Cuba and providing humanitarian support for its people for a long time.

“However,” he continued, “the policies currently in place created advantages that the President has simply given away with this deal and will serve largely to enrich the leaders of Cuba.

"The original embargo imposed by President Kennedy and the Cuban Democracy Act was of 1992 was explicitly intended to maintain sanctions on Cuba until the government moved toward 'democratization and greater respect for human rights.' Neither of these goals has been achieved with this deal.
The President has yet again damaged America's ability to use negotiations to make positive changes around the world."

Major U.S. agricultural groups, however, welcomed Obama’s initiative.

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the biggest U.S. farmer organization, said AFBF has long called for a removal of trade restrictions with Cuba.

“The president’s opening to Cuba promises to improve trade conditions by making it easier for Cuba to buy U.S. agricultural and food products,” Stallman said in a statement. “This is welcome news for our nation’s farmers and ranchers.

“Right now, U.S. farmers can export to Cuba, but third-party banking requirements and limited credit financing make it harder to compete in the market than it should be. We look forward to a prompt lifting of those restrictions.”

U.S. Wheat Associates tweeted that it welcomed the news and that its members are “ready to do business with Cuba. Wheat sales to Cuba peaked at $135 million in 2008. In one of its tweets, the group said the nation has the potential to import at least 500,000 metric tons of wheat a year, mostly Hard Red Winter wheat, from ports in the Gulf of Mexico, “only a short sail away.”

In an email, Melissa Kessler, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Grains Council, noted that the U.S. has been selling corn and DDGS (dried distillers grains with solubles, a byproduct of ethanol production used as animal feed) to Cuba for more than a decade. “Our position is to support open trade, and if the market becomes open, we would work there to promote further exports,” she said.

(Philip Brasher contributed to this report.)


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