WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States and Cuba moved to end five decades of Cold War hostility Wednesday, agreeing to revive diplomatic ties in a surprise breakthrough that would also ease a crippling US trade embargo.
In the wake of a prisoner exchange, President Barack Obama said Washington was ready for a “new chapter” in relations with communist Cuba and would re-establish its embassy in Havana, shuttered since 1961.
“We are all Americans,” Obama declared, breaking into Spanish for a speech that the White House portrayed as a bid to reassert US leadership in the Western Hemisphere.
Cuba’s President Raul Castro, speaking at the same time in Havana, confirmed that the former enemies had “agreed to re-establish diplomatic ties” after a half century of rancor.
“President Obama’s decision deserves the respect and acknowledgement of our people,” Castro said, while warning that the embargo – which he calls a “blockade” – must still be lifted.
In Washington, Obama admitted the US trade ban had failed and said he would urge Congress to lift it, while using his presidential authority to advance diplomatic and travel links.
“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalise relations between our two countries,” Obama said.
“Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.”
Obama later raised the hitherto unthinkable prospect of a US president embarking on a visit to Cuba, saying nothing was ruled out.
“I don’t have any current plans, but let’s see how things evolve,” Obama told ABC’s “World News Tonight” in an exclusive interview.
Plaudits for the significant policy shift poured in from all corners of the globe.
The European Union, which is also moving to normalise ties with Cuba, hailed the breakthrough as a “historical turning point”.
In Havana, Cubans erupted in celebration.
“I have goosebumps all over,” said Ernesto Perez, 52, who works at a cafeteria in Havana’s historic city centre.
Chile’s Foreign Minister Heraldo Munoz spoke for those in Latin America who are frustrated by the diplomatic divide, declaring, “This is the beginning of the end of the Cold War in the Americas.”
Obama and Castro praised the help given by Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, and the Catholic Church in brokering better relations between the long-time enemies.
In response, the Vatican said the pope warmly congratulated both governments for overcoming “the difficulties which have marked their recent history.”
Canada was also praised for hosting secret talks between the sides.
The surprise breakthrough came after Havana released jailed US contractor Alan Gross and a Cuban who spied for Washington and had been held for 20 years – one of the most important US agents in Cuba.
Havana also agreed to release dozens of political prisoners, a senior US official said.
The United States in turn freed three Cuban spies, and Obama said he had instructed the US State Department to re-examine its designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.
The United States imposed a trade embargo against Cuba – the Cold War foe closest to its shores – in 1960 and the two countries have not had full diplomatic relations since 1961.