President Barack Obama spoke Wednesday on U.S. relations with Cuba, hours after American Alan Gross was released from a Cuban prison, where he’d been for five years.
Gross was accompanied back to the U.S. by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). The Cuban government had detained Gross for setting up satellite Internet access as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, and charged him with violating the country’s “territorial integrity.”
“Today, Alan returned home, reunited with his family at long last,” Obama said in remarks delivered from the White House.
Three Cubans who had been jailed in the U.S. for spying, along with a U.S. intelligence source who had been jailed in Cuba for more than 20 years, were also released on Wednesday. Obama said that U.S. source was released “separately” from Gross.
Several lawmakers were quick to criticize the release of the Cuban spies, including Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.).
“Trading Mr. Gross for three convicted criminals sets an extremely dangerous precedent,” Menendez said in a statement. “It invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also criticized the spies’ release, saying during an interview on Fox News that it “sets a very dangerous precedent,” and calling the normalization of relations with Cuba “absurd.”
“This is going to do absolutely nothing to further human rights and democracy in Cuba,” Rubio told the AP earlier Wednesday. “But it potentially goes a long way in providing the economic lift that the Castro regime needs to become permanent fixtures in Cuba for generations to come.”
Obama addressed these critics in his remarks on Wednesday.
“I respect your passion and share you commitment to liberty and democracy,” the president said.
Obama also said he’s “under no illusion about the continued barriers to freedom” Cuban citizens still face.
“I do not expect the changes I am announcing today to bring about a transformation of Cuban society overnight,” Obama said.
Officials said Wednesday that talks will begin to normalize full U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations, according to the AP. The U.S. also will aim to open an embassy in Havana in the coming months.
“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Obama said Wednesday, noting he’s instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to begin the discussions to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba.
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