Via Fox News:
The Obama administration is moving to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba, sources told Fox News, after American Alan Gross was released from the communist country Wednesday following five years in prison.
Sources say President Obama plans to announce the opening of a U.S. embassy in Havana and call on Congress to lift the long-standing embargo.
Together, the announcements would mark the most significant shift in U.S. policy toward the communist island in decades, American officials said Wednesday. Obama was to announce the policy changes from the White House at noon Wednesday.
The announcement comes after Gross was freed, as part of a swap that included the release of three Cubans jailed in the U.S. A senior Obama administration official told Fox News that Gross left Cuba on a U.S. government plane Wednesday morning. “Mr. Gross was released on humanitarian grounds by the Cuban government at the request of the United States,” the official said.
Obama administration officials have considered Gross’ imprisonment an impediment to improving relations with Cuba, and the surprise deal was quickly making way for rapid changes in U.S. policy.
The release follows years of desperate appeals by Gross and his family. His wife, Judy Gross, said earlier this year that she feared for his life, saying he might do “something drastic.”
Gross was detained in December 2009 while working to set up Internet access as a subcontractor for the U.S. government’s U.S. Agency for International Development, which does work promoting democracy in the communist country. It was his fifth trip to Cuba to work with Jewish communities on setting up Internet access that bypassed local censorship.
Cuba considers USAID’s programs illegal attempts by the U.S. to undermine its government, and Gross was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The three Cubans released in exchange for Gross are part of the so-called Cuban Five — a group of men who were part of the “Wasp Network” sent by Cuba’s then-President Fidel Castro to spy in South Florida. The men, who are hailed as heroes in Cuba, were convicted in 2001 in Miami on charges including conspiracy and failure to register as foreign agents in the U.S.
Two of the Cuban Five were previously released after finishing their sentences.
In a statement marking the fifth anniversary of Gross’ detention earlier this month, Obama hinted that his release could lead to a thaw in relations with Cuba.
“The Cuban Government’s release of Alan on humanitarian grounds would remove an impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba,” Obama said in a statement.
The president has taken some steps to ease U.S. restrictions on Cuba after Raul Castro took over as president in 2010 from his ailing brother. He has sought to ease travel and financial restrictions on Americans with family in Cuba, but had resisted calls to drop the embargo.
The surprise prisoner swap has echoes of the deal the U.S. cut earlier this year to secure the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held by the Taliban. In exchange for his release in May, the U.S. turned over five Taliban prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.