After five years of imprisonment, Cuba is releasing 65-year-old American contractor Alan Gross, who is now on his way home to the United States.
As part of the negotiations, which lasted more than a year behind the scenes, President Barack Obama spoke with Cuban President Raul Castro on the possibility of normalizing diplomatic relations with the island nation. It could mean the end of an embargo lasting more than a half-century.
In exchange, the United States agreed to release three Cuban agents convicted of espionage who were found guilty of spying on anti-Castro groups based in Miami, but not the U.S. government.
The conversation between Obama and Castro on Tuesday lasted more than 45 minutes, representing the first significant communication between leaders of the two countries since 1961.
Obama could announce opening relations with Cuba as soon as Wednesday.
The unexpected development brought a range of reactions from Florida-based lawmakers, which were both critical and in qualified support.
“The success of this monumental development depends on Castro’s willingness to grant basic democratic freedoms for the Cuban people,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Two years ago, the Florida Democrat met with Haitian President Michel Martelly, who later visited Castro. Nelson called on Martelly to urge Castro to release Gross.
When asked if he favors easing the five-decade-old U.S. economic embargo against the Communist nation, Nelson responded, “Let’s see if Castro changes the behavior of a brutal police state and provides freedoms for the Cuban people.”
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio released a statement warning that the Obama administration’s change in U.S. policy toward Cuba is “just the latest in a long line of failed attempts” to appease rogue regimes at all costs:
“Like all Americans, I rejoice at the fact that Alan Gross will be able to return to his family after five years in captivity. Although he is supposedly being released on humanitarian grounds, his inclusion in a swap involving intelligence agents furthers the Cuban narrative about his work in Cuba.
“In contrast, the Cuban Five were spies operating against our nation on American soil. They were indicted and prosecuted in a court of law for the crimes of espionage and were linked to the murder of the humanitarian pilots of Brothers to the Rescue. There should be no equivalence between the two, and Gross should have been released unconditionally.
“The President’s decision to reward the Castro regime and begin the path toward the normalization of relations with Cuba is inexplicable. Cuba’s record is clear. Just as when President Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Castro family still controls the country, the economy and all levers of power. This administration’s attempts to loosen restrictions on travel in recent years have only served to benefit the regime.
“While business interests seeking to line their pockets, aided by the editorial page of The New York Times, have begun a significant campaign to paper over the facts about the regime in Havana, the reality is clear. Cuba, like Syria, Iran, and Sudan, remains a state sponsor of terrorism. It continues to actively work with regimes like North Korea to illegally traffic weapons in our hemisphere in violation of several United Nations Security Council Resolutions. It colludes with America’s enemies, near and far, to threaten us and everything we hold dear. But most importantly, the regime’s brutal treatment of the Cuban people has continued unabated. Dissidents are harassed, imprisoned and even killed. Access to information is restricted and controlled by the regime.
“That is why even more than just putting U.S. national security at risk, President Obama is letting down the Cuban people, who still yearn to be free.”
The Miami Republican added that he will use his role as incoming chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee to “make every effort to block this dangerous and desperate attempt by the President to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people’s expense.”
He said the move will open the door for tyrants “from Caracas to Tehran to Pyongyang” to take advantage of Obama’s “naivete,” resulting in weakened national security.
U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney‘s statement echoes relief over Gross’ release. But the Republican from Florida’s 17th Congressional District also raised “serious questions” about the manner the exchange was conducted, including promises made to Cuba for the future:
“I cannot fathom why the Obama Administration would choose this time to begin sending American citizens and dollars into Cuba, a state sponsor of terror,” he said. “The corrupt, brutal, communist Castro regime is on its final legs – why would we prop them up with economic activity and a stamp of approval from the United States?
“Make no mistake: any dollar that American tourists or consumers send to Cuba will directly assist a government that oppresses its own people and sponsors terrorism against us and our allies. President Obama’s policy changes will empower the Castro regime, set back efforts to bring freedom and democracy to Cuba and other Latin American nations, and compromise America’s national security.”
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman praised Obama’s decision on Cuba and supports the president’s efforts to normalize relations.
“The simplest way to bring democracy to that country is to give them greater access to see how democracy works here, and this is a first step towards that,” Kriseman said in a statement. “Given Florida’s close proximity to Cuba, I see great potential for trade and tourism exchange to positively impact St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay region.”
Republican Congressman-elect Carlos Curbelo, who represents South Florida’s 26th Congressional District, said he was “happy for Alan Gross and his family,” but criticized Obama’s “unilateral” action on U.S.-Cuba relations.
Curbelo called the move by the Obama administration an “affront” to Congress.
“The Cuban dictatorship cruelly held (Gross) hostage for over five years in an effort to extort the Obama Administration,” he said in a statement. “It worked.”
“The fact that his release was part of a swap for imprisoned Cuban spies who represented a serious threat to U.S. national security and who were accomplices in the murders of American citizens is condemnable and unacceptable.”
Once in Congress, Curbelo vows “tirelessly to hold the Administration accountable for this reckless conduct” which he believes damaged American national security and “benefits Cuba’s dictators.”