President Barack Obama delivers an address announcing that the U.S. will work with Cuba to normalize diplomatic ties in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Dec. 17, 2014. UPI/Doug Mills/Pool | License Photo
WASHINGTON, Dec. 17 (UPI) -- The United States will "chart a new course in our relations with Cuba," President Barack Obama announced Wednesday.
Speaking from the White House, Obama unveiled sweeping changes to U.S.-Cuba relations following the release of American Alan Gross,, who spent five years in a Cuban prison.
"We will begin to normalize relations between our two countries," Obama said, calling the changes a historical development in a complicated relationship that has "played out against the backdrop of the Cold War."
"Isolation has not worked," Obama said. "It's time for a new approach."
The new course will involve steps toward normalizing diplomatic relations between the two countries and an easing of U.S.-imposed sanctions.
"This contact will ultimately do more to empower the Cuban people," he said.
Key components of the updated U.S. policy toward Cuba:
-- Re-establish a U.S. embassy presence in Havana
-- Amend U.S. Departments of Treasury and Commerce regulations concerning Cuba
-- Ease travel restrictions to Cuba
-- Increase remittance levels from $500 to $2,000 per quarter
-- Authorize expanded commercial sales/exports from the United States
-- Authorize U.S. travelers to import $400 worth of goods from Cuba
-- Facilitate financial transactions between the United States and Cuba
-- Enhance Cuba's access to communications and information sharing
-- Review U.S. designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terror.
Obama said he will engage with Congress to seek a lifting of the decades-long embargo, which he said is currently codified by U.S. law.
Since taking office in 2009, Obama promised to re-examine U.S. policy toward Cuba, but he said, "a major obstacle stood in our way:" the detention of USAID contractor Gross.
Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro spoke Tuesday, marking the end of 18 months of secret talks that had been encouraged by Pope Francis and ultimately resulted in a major prisoner exchange.
The United States has released three Cuban agents, Obama said, in exchange for the release of Gross and an imprisoned Cuban whom the president credited with helping the U.S. government dismantle a Cuban intelligence network inside the United States.
"This man is now safely on our shores," Obama said of the agent.
The president acknowledged that a decades-long embargo on Cuba -- "though rooted in the best of intentions" -- had "failed."
Rather than achieving the goal of a democratic Cuba, Obama said the sanctions instead "isolated the United States from regional and international partners, constrained our ability to influence outcomes throughout the Western Hemisphere, and impaired the use of the full range of tools available to the United States to promote positive change in Cuba."