Cuba: US agrees to normalize relations

In a surprise move, Cuban president Raúl Castro and US president Barack Obama announced in separate television appearances on Dec. 17 that their two countries were now working to renew diplomatic relations, which the US broke off nearly 54 years earlier, in January 1961, under former president Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961). The two countries were releasing a total of 58 prisoners in the agreement, officials said, and the US will loosen some restrictions on contacts with Cuba by US residents; however, the US government's 52-year-old embargo against trade with Cuba will remain in effect.

The accord was worked out in 18 months of secret discussions and meetings, apparently with some mediation from Argentine-born Catholic pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio). President Castro said the agreement "in no way means that the heart of the matter has been resolved," but he added that "the progress made in our exchanges proves that it is possible to find solutions to many problems." President Obama described the previous US policy towards Cuba as "an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests" and said the accord will "begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas."

As part of the agreement Cuba released US citizen Alan Gross, who had been serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba since 2011 for his work there as a contractor for the US Agency for International Development (USAID). At the same time the US released Antonio Guerrero, Gerardo Hernández and Ramón Labañino, three of the "Cuban Five," a group of Cuban agents that US courts convicted in 2001 of espionage-related activities; the other two agents, René González and Fernando González, were released earlier after serving their sentences. Cuban officials said Gross, who was unwell, was freed for humanitarian reasons. Apparently the three Cubans were not exchanged for Gross but for a US spy who had been imprisoned in Cuba for nearly 20 years. The Cuban government also agreed to release 53 Cubans that the US had described as "political prisoners." (New York Times, Dec. 18)

Cuban and US officials refused to name the US spy who was released, but unidentified former US intelligence agents told the media they were certain the spy was Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a Cuban cryptologist who was arrested in 1995 and was serving a 25-year sentence for revealing Cuban secret codes to the US. Reportedly his actions helped lead US intelligence to the exposure of a number of important Cuban agents in the US: the Cuban Five, Ana Belén Montes, Walter Kendall Myers and Gwendolyn Myers. Although officials said the spy was freed and sent to the US as part of the deal, as of Dec. 19 Sarraff Trujillo's relatives said they hadn't heard from him and were concerned for his safety. (Los Angeles Times, Dec. 18; NYT, Dec. 19, from AP)

The US government is to ease restrictions on different categories of travel to Cuba by US residents—for family visits, official visits, and journalistic, professional, educational and religious activities, and public performance—and travelers will also be able to bring back $400 worth of goods, including up to $100 in tobacco and alcohol products. However, private tourism will still be forbidden. Banking connections will be increased, and US residents will be able to send family members in Cuba $2,000 every three months, up from $500 at present. The US State Department has been instructed to "re-evaluate" its 22-year-old listing of Cuba as a "state sponsor of terrorism," a designation which has been questioned even by establishment groups like the Council on Foreign Relations think tank. The US president lacks the authority to end the trade embargo, which Congress has mandated through various laws, but on Dec. 17 Obama asked for an "honest and serious debate about lifting" it. (Boston Globe, Dec. 17; NYT, Dec. 18; US Today, Dec. 19)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, December 21.