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.