Last Updated Dec 17, 2014 1:00 PM EST
President Obama announced Wednesday that the United States is taking steps to restore full diplomacy with Cuba, a historic move that will end 50 years of frozen relations with the communist nation.
"I believe we can do more to support the Cuban people and our values through engagement," Mr. Obama said from the White House. "These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It's time for a new approach."
Since entering the White House, President Obama had expressed interest in normalizing relations with Cuba. The breakthrough announced Wednesday came after Cuba agreed to release American prisoner Alan Gross.
Mr. Obama called Cuban President Raul Castro on Tuesday -- the first engagement at the presidential level between Cuba and the United States since the Cuban revolution -- to discuss the release of Gross and one other man characterized as a U.S. intelligence asset, as well as the United States' release of three Cuban intelligence officers. They also discussed areas of potential cooperation between the two nations, including counter-terrorism efforts.
The U.S. and Cuba will now immediately begin discussions to re-establish diplomatic relations, including plans to establish an embassy in Havana. Mr. Obama has also directed Secretary of State John Kerry to review Cuba's designation of a state sponsor of terrorism. Additionally, the U.S. is taking a number of steps to significantly increase the flow of travel and commerce between the two countries. Cuba, meanwhile, is releasing 53 additional prisoners at the United States' recommendation.
"We intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas," the president said.
Mr. Obama acknowledged that the U.S. and Cuba have a "complicated history," with ideological and economic barriers that developed against the backdrop of the Cold War and have hardened over time. Still, he noted that the two nations are physically separated by just 90 miles of water, and that Cuban-Americans have made substantial contributions to politics, business, culture and sports in the U.S.
The United States and Cuba, he said, are "at once family and foe."
"Todos somos Americanos," Mr. Obama said. "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."
Senior administration officials stressed Wednesday that differences remain between the U.S. and Cuba on issues such as democracy and human rights, and the U.S. will continue to press Cuba on those issues.
"Our emphasis on human rights will be just as strong and we believe more effective under this policy," one senior administration official told reporters.
The Obama administration is not at this time calling on Congress to reverse laws on the books that have kept relations with Cuba frozen, though Mr. Obama said he looks forward to eventually "engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo." Meanwhile, he and other administration officials have briefed leaders in Congress on its discussions with the Cuban government.
Some lawmakers were quick to express their disappointment in Mr. Obama's moves.
In a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, charged that "the White House has conceded everything but gained little," with no commitment from Cuba to "even begin the semblance of a transition to democracy."
He called Mr. Obama "the single worst negotiator we have had in the White House in my lifetime."
Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey who is the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that "trading Mr. Gross for three convicted criminals sets an extremely dangerous precedent."
The administration has pushed back against that specific critique, noting that the unnamed intelligence "asset" who was also released from Cuba provided the U.S. with critically important information, including intelligence that led to the capture of the three Cubans now being sent back there. Mr. Obama called him "one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba."
Mr. Obama on Wednesday spoke directly to the critics of his policy decision.
"I respect your passion and share your commitment to liberty and democracy," he said. "The question is how we uphold that commitment. I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result."
Mr. Obama noted that no other nation imposes sanctions on Cuba as the U.S. does, making those efforts fruitless. He also pointed out the U.S. now has productive relations with China, a far larger communist country, as well as Vietnam.
While U.S.-Cuban relations has been a politically charged issue for decades, views have begun to shift. Younger Cuban-Americans have expressed more interest in thawing relations between the two countries.
Meanwhile, Cuba and the United States have quietly worked together on various diplomatic fronts in recent years. For instance, Cuba was one of the first nations along with the United States to send doctors to Africa to fight the ongoing Ebola outbreak.
Perhaps even more critically, opening up relations with Cuba "substantially opens the door for the United States in the hemisphere," according to one senior administration official.
The United States' prior policy of isolation had been a "huge burden, if not an albatross" on U.S. relations in the Western hemisphere, the official said. "This could be transformative event for the United States in Latin America."
Mr. Obama authorized his administration in the spring of 2013 to begin exploring the possibility of opening up relations with Cuba. In June 2013, Cuban and U.S. officials met in Canada for their first face-to-face meetings on the issue. Canada hosted the meeting but did not participate in the diplomatic talks.
The Vatican, however, did play a role. Pope Francis sent Mr. Obama and Castro a letter, urging them to resolve the Alan Gross situation. The Vatican also hosted U.S. and Cuban delegations over the fall to review the final diplomatic terms that were announced Wednesday. When Mr. Obama spoke in person with Pope Francis earlier this year, according to administration officials, they talked about Cuba more than anything else.
Mr. Obama on Wednesday thanked the Canadians, the bipartisan lawmakers who helped facilitate Gross' release, and the pope. "In particular, I want to thank His Holiness, Pope Francis, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is," he said.
Administration officials on Wednesday said there is no clear timeline for establishing its new relationship with Cuba, but they noted that both the U.S. and Cuban government are interested in doing so as soon as possible.
Practically speaking, the reforms will make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba. Additionally, Americans will be able to use American credit and debit cards on the island, and U.S. financial institutions will be able to open accounts at Cuban financial institutions. The U.S. is also significantly increasing the amount of money that can be sent to Cuba and removing limits on remittances. Mr. Obama has also authorized increased telecommunications connections between the United States and Cuba. And in April, the U.S. will welcome Cuba at the Summit of the Americas.