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Obama Begins 'New Chapter' with Cuba Policy Changes, But Anti-Castro Lawmakers Vow Embargo Will Stand

WASHINGTON — The White House vowed to do everything it can to “chart a new course” in relations with Cuba in unilateral action that anti-Castro lawmakers feared was on the horizon.

Speaking from the Cabinet Room in a noontime address, President Obama said he would “begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas” with his directives on Cuba policy.

Obama noted the U.S. has long established relations with China and Vietnam, arguing with that example there’s no excuse not to have relations with a communist nation.

“I’ve been prepared to take additional steps for some time,” Obama said, noting that the five-year imprisonment of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross “stood in the way.”

Obama said he ordered Secretary of State John Kerry to “immediately” begin talks to normalize relations with Cuba, adding that the U.S. will open an embassy in Havana and “high-level officials” will visit Cuba soon.

“I believe that we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement,” he argued.

The president also said the U.S. agreed to review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. “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,” he said. Cuba has been on the list since 1982.

Obama said he would authorize “increased transactions” with Cuba, including making it easier for U.S. exporters to send goods to Cuba and increased telecommunications between the two countries.

“These are steps that I can take as president,” he said, adding that he’ll engage in an “honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo” with Congress.

“I’m under no illusion about the continued barriers to freedom that remain for ordinary Cubans,” Obama said, but said he does “not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades.”

He also panned the idea of changes in Cuba coming through regime change, saying “lasting transformation” would be difficult if Cubans were “subjected to chaos.”

Pope Francis had urged Obama and the Castros to release Gross, and a senior administration official said Vatican officials sat in on the talks. Obama said the pope’s “moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.”

“Todos somos Americanos,” the president added.

Kerry said in a statement that “our policy toward Cuba has remained virtually frozen, and done little to promote a prosperous, democratic and stable Cuba.”

“Not only has this policy failed to advance America’s goals, it has actually isolated the United States instead of isolating Cuba,” Kerry said. “…With this new opening, the president has committed the United States to begin to chart an even more ambitious course forward.”

In relaxing sanctions so as to not “add to the burden of Cuban citizens we seek to help,” the White House said it is “calling on Cuba to unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans by ending unnecessary restrictions on their political, social, and economic activities.”

The U.S. released the remaining three members of the “Cuban Five” back to Havana for what the administration says was the release of a U.S. “intelligence asset” held on the island for 20 years. A senior administration official said they would not name the asset.

Obama said the man gathered intel that led to the arrest of the Cuban Five, who are intelligence officers convicted of espionage and conspiracy to commit murder.

Gross, held for more than five years by the Castro regime, was finally released and landed in the U.S. today. The administration swore that he wasn’t included in the swap, but was released on “humanitarian” grounds.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) wasn’t buying it. “Let’s be clear, this was not a ‘humanitarian’ act by the Castro regime,” Menendez said. “It was a swap of convicted spies for an innocent American.”

The White House said it would make general licenses for travel available to the existing categories under law: “(1) family visits; (2) official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; (3) journalistic activity; (4) professional research and professional meetings; (5) educational activities; (6) religious activities; (7) public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; (8) support for the Cuban people; (9) humanitarian projects; (10) activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; (11) exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and (12) certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.”

Remittance levels will be raised from $500 to $2,000 per quarter for general donative remittances to Cuban nationals, the administration added. Licensed U.S. travelers to Cuba will be authorized to import $400 worth of goods from Cuba and be able to use credit and debit cards on the island.

On a conference call with reporters, a senior administration official said Fidel Castro was not involved in the talks, just President Raul Castro.

The official said Obama will do “everything he can to facilitate travel within the limitations of the law,” noting that Congress has to lift the embargo.

Another official said the administration plans a meeting with Cuban dissidents to “walk them through” the president’s initiatives, saying they feel human-rights activists will “get new wind” in their efforts as a result of Obama’s relaxed approach.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who will be chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee in the GOP majority 114th Congress, vowed in a statement to “make every effort to block this dangerous and desperate attempt by the president to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people’s expense.”

“Appeasing the Castro brothers will only cause other tyrants from Caracas to Tehran to Pyongyang to see that they can take advantage of President Obama’s naiveté during his final two years in office,” Rubio said.

“As a result, America will be less safe as a result of the president’s change in policy. When America is unwilling to advocate for individual liberty and freedom of political expression 90 miles from our shores, it represents a terrible setback for the hopes of all oppressed people around the globe.”

In a press conference later on the Hill, Rubio said Kerry personally called him this morning to justify the administration’s action, but the senator maintained the entire policy shift is “based on an illusion.”

“It is just another concession to tyranny by the Obama administration,” the senator said, calling Obama the “single worst negotiator we have had in the White House in my lifetime.”

“This Congress is not going to lift the embargo,” Rubio said, adding that the dozens of political prisoners set free by Castro can easily be re-imprisoned.

Menendez said Obama’s move “invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips.”

“I fear that today’s actions will put at risk the thousands of Americans that work overseas to support civil society, advocate for access to information, provide humanitarian services, and promote democratic reforms,” Menendez said.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who will take the Foreign Relations gavel from Menendez in the next Congress, said in a statement, “The new U.S. policy announced by the administration is no doubt sweeping, and as of now there is no real understanding as to what changes the Cuban government is prepared to make. We will be closely examining the implications of these major policy changes in the next Congress.”

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), though, lauded Gross’ release as bringing about policy changes.

“It was an honor to be with Alan as he touched down on U.S. soil after more than five years in a Cuban prison,” Flake said. “When I visited Alan last month, he expressed the hope that his ordeal might somehow lead to positive changes between the United States and Cuba. With today’s significant and far-reaching announcements, I think it already has.”

“Alan’s release marks a new day for U.S.-Cuban relations. No degree of ‘normalization’ could ever occur as long as the Cuban government was unjustly holding an innocent American citizen,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “We will not forget the previous transgressions of the Cuban government, but we can move on together toward a more fruitful relationship with one of our closest neighbors. A healthy and prosperous Cuba is good for the United States and will promote a more open society that respects human rights and individual freedoms.”