U.S. President Barack Obama announced a move to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba on Wednesday, saying it is time to "cut loose the shackles of the past."
In a speech at the White House, Obama said the thaw in relations after a five-decade freeze is being made after he determined the "rigid" and outdated policy of the past failed to have an impact on Cuba.
"Today we are making these changes because it is the right thing to do. Today America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past, so as to reach for a better future, for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere, and for the world," he said.
He said the new policy will make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba. Obama said he would also talk to members of the U.S. Congress about lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
Pope Francis assisted in the thaw in relations by pressing for the release of Jewish-American aid worker Alan Gross from Cuba, the president said.
Obama thanked Canada for the role it played in hosting U.S.-Cuban discussions. The United States is planning to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba more than 50 years after they were severed, a major policy shift after decades of hostile ties with the communist-ruled island.
Obama spoke on Tuesday to Cuban President Raul Castro to discuss the changes in a call that lasted nearly an hour.
The shift will mean a relaxation in the flow of commerce and transportation by the United States to Cuba, the officials said. Travel restrictions that currently make it hard for most Americans to visit will be eased, but the door will not yet be open for broad U.S. tourism on the Caribbean island.
The policy shift was heralded by the release of Gross, who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years. Cuba is also releasing an intelligence agent who spied for the United States and was held for nearly 20 years, and the United States is releasing three Cuban intelligence agents held in the United States, the officials said.
Gross' imprisonment had been a block to any movement by Washington toward improved ties with Cuba.
The two countries have been ideological foes since soon after the 1959 revolution that brought Raul Castro's older brother, Fidel Castro, to power. Washington and Havana have no diplomatic relations and the United States has maintained a trade embargo on Cuba for more than 50 years.
Washington's policy has survived the end of the Cold War as the United States pushes for democratic reform in Cuba.
"These steps will be the most significant changes to our Cuba policy in more than 50 years," a senior administration official told reporters of the measures. "What we are doing is beginning the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba."
The official said the United States and Cuba would initiate high-level contacts and visits with Cuba, with a view to reestablishing diplomatic relations severed in 1961.
One official said the policy was being changed because of a belief within the Obama administration that the trade embargo was not working. "If there is any U.S. foreign policy that has passed its expiration date, it is the U.S. Cuba policy," the official said.
Cuban American senators were quick to criticize the moves.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida where a large part of the country's Cuban American population lives, said, "The president's decision to reward the Castro regime and begin the path toward the normalization of relations with Cuba is inexplicable."
Rubio added in a statement he would use his role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Western Hemisphere subcommittee in the new Congress to try to block the plan.
The U.S. official said Gross was released on humanitarian grounds and left Cuba on a U.S. government plane bound for the United States. In addition to Gross, congressional sources said the prisoner exchange included Cuba's release of a CIA prisoner and the U.S. release of three Cuban intelligence agents.
Cuba arrested Gross, now 65, on Dec. 3, 2009, and later 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 U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Gross arrived at Andrews military base, near Washington D.C, shortly before noon.
Obama was bound to face criticism in Washington and within the Cuban exile community in Miami for freeing the Cuban intelligence agents after 16 years in prison. Their freedom will be hailed as a resounding victory at home for Raul Castro.
The payoff for Obama was the release of Gross, whose lawyer and family have described him as mentally vanquished, gaunt, hobbling and missing five teeth.
Senior Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said talks for Gross' release lasted about a year and the Vatican played a role, as did Cuban Archbishop Jaime Ortega.
Raul Castro has undertaken a series of economic reforms, but has maintained a one-party political system. The United States has said it wants to promote democracy in Cuba, where political opponents are repressed and the state controls the media.