On December 10, 2013, US President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at the funeral ceremony of Noble Peace laureate South African leader Nelson Mandela. That was an earth shattering moment for the world because the US and Cuba had broken off their diplomatic relations 52 years ago in January 1961.
But Mandela’s soul must be feeling very happy in heaven because on December 17, 2014, the United States and Cuba agreed to break the ice and restore ties, which, according to reports, comes due to the efforts of the Vatican
. President Barack Obama called for an end to the long economic embargo against its old Cold War enemy. “We need to learn to live together in a civilized way, with our differences,” Cuban President Raul Castro, brother of Fidel Castro, said in televised address that touched off jubilation in the streets of Havana.
Cuba and the United States have been ideological foes since soon after the 1959 revolution that brought President Raul Castro’s older brother, Fidel Castro, to power.
The hostilities were punctuated by crises over spies, refugees and the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war
. Cuba steered a leftist course that turned it into a close ally of the former Soviet Union on the island, which lies just 90 miles (140 km) south of Florida.
Between 1960 and 1980, waves of Cuban refugees fled
the Caribbean island nation for US and other countries. The two most significant incidents involving Cuban refugees were Operation Peter Pan
(or Pedor Pan) and Mariel Boatlift
A Reuters report says that Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro held secret talks for 18 months before agreeing in a phone call on Tuesday on a breakthrough prisoner exchange, the opening of embassies in each other’s countries, and an easing of some restrictions on commerce.
Obama administration’s policy shift includes an opening to more commerce in some areas, allowing use of US credit and debit cards, increasing the amount of money that can be sent to Cubans and allowing export of telecommunications devices and services.
Travel restrictions that make it hard for most Americans to visit will be eased, but the door will not yet be open
for broad US tourism on the Caribbean island.
Obama’s announcement also will not end the US trade embargo that has been in force for more than 50 years. Andrew Buncombe of The Independent
draws an outline of what the new relationship means for the two countries.
Alan Gross and his wife Judy face a news conference in Washington hours after his release from Cuba on December 17, 2014. Cuba released Gross after five years in prison in a reported prisoner exchange. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
This historic opening was made possible by Havana’s release of American Alan Gross, 65, who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years. Gross’ case had been a major obstacle to improving relations. Cuba arrested Gross on December 3, 2009, and sentenced him to 15 years in prison for importing banned technology and trying to establish clandestine Internet service for Cuban Jews. Gross had been working as a subcontractor for the US Agency for International Development.
Cuba also released an intelligence agent who spied for the United States and was held for nearly 20 years
. The United States in return freed three Cuban intelligence agents held in the United States. The three Cuban intelligence agents, jailed since 1998, are Gerardo Hernandez, 49, Antonio Guerrero, 56, and Ramon Labañino, 51. Two others had been released before on completing their sentences – Rene Gonzalez, 58, and Fernando Gonzalez, 51.
Cars drive past a banner featuring five Cuban prisoners held in U.S. custody, two of whom were previously released, in Havana December 17, 2014. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa
But older Cubans who left the island soon after the revolution have remained opposed to ties with either Castro brother in power.
Younger Cubans, who left more recently or were born in the United States, have shown more interest in warmer relations. “I have waited for this day since I can remember,” said taxi driver Jorge Reymond in Cuba, wiping away tears.
Images of the “Cuban Five” cover billboards across the country, and the men are referred to as “anti-terrorist heroes” in official media for their work in spying on extremist Cuban exile groups in Florida.
People cheer for the “Cuban Five” while holding a poster of the five Cuban intelligent agents, in Havana December 17, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer
One of the most regal things in Cuba are the Yank Tanks – cars of the 1950s that still ply on Havana roads because Cuba can’t import new cars because of embargo. Will the new friendship lead to new machines?
Jorge Rey/Getty Images
And there is this possibility, too.