Update: The White House confirms it plans to normalize trade and travel to Cuba, saying, "It is clear that decades of U.S. isolation of Cuba have failed." In Little Havana, the news has yet to stir any real protests as TV crews far outnumber a handful of sign-waving protesters.
American contractor Alan Gross was released from Cuban prison this morning, according to ABC.
Gross, a USAID employee caught in 2009 distributing satellite equipment that is banned in Cuba, was in declining health. According to ABC, Gross' release is part of a prisoner swap that will see the three remaining members of the "Cuban Five" spy ring returned to the island.
Word is now bubbling that the move might just be the first step in a much bigger announcement. President Obama will speak at noon and reportedly may announce plans to thaw the Cuban trade embargo.
For years, Cuba experts have warned that Gross' detention and deteriorating health have complicated efforts to ease tensions between the two countries.
In October, for example, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern suggested that Obama was poised to make dramatic moves toward normalizing relations with Cuba -- but only if Gross were released first.
"We are reassured [by the White House] that people are working on it," McGovern said during a conference at Columbia University. "I hear rumors that maybe something might happen after the election."
Just last week, President Obama reiterated his concern for Gross in an interview with Fusion's Jorge Ramos.
"We've been in conversations about how we can get Alan Gross home for quite some time," Obama said. "We continue to be concerned about him. We think that he shouldn't have been held in the first place... With respect to Cuba generally, I've made very clear that the policies that we have in making remittances easier for Cuban families, and making it easier for families to travel, have been helpful to people inside Cuba... But the Cuban government still needs to make significant changes."
Today's news is still shocking, however. If McGovern is right, it could lead to sweeping changes between the two countries, including the de facto dismantling of the embargo.
Internet speculation about the prisoner swap's impact is already reaching a fever pitch. Atlantic Magazine correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted that today "may turn out to be the most important day in Cuba-U.S. relations since the missile crisis."
This may turn out be the most important day in Cuba-U.S. relations since the missile crisis more than 50 years ago.
— Jeffrey Goldberg (@JeffreyGoldberg) December 17, 2014
#BREAKING: U.S. to start talks with Cuba to normalize full diplomatic relations, open embassy.
— Miami Herald (@MiamiHerald) December 17, 2014
Both Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro are expected to address their respective nations at noon.
The deal may not go down well here in Miami, however, where the "Cuban Five" are still widely considered terrorists.
The five men were arrested in 1998 for spying on el exilio. After a seven-month trial, they were quickly convicted of all 26 charges against them.
The Cuban government has acknowledged that the men were secret agents but insisted they were only trying to prevent terrorist attacks they believed were orchestrated by Luis Posada Carriles. Cuba claimed the men never spied on the U.S. government.
In a statement, congressman-elect Carlos Curbelo slammed the prisoner swap:
We are happy for Alan Gross and his family. The Cuban dictatorship cruelly held him hostage for over five years in an effort to extort the Obama Administration. It worked. The fact that his release was part of a swap for imprisoned Cuban spies who represented a serious threat to US national security and who were accomplices in the murders of American citizens is condemnable and unacceptable. Furthermore, the Obama Administration's unilateral changes to US - Cuba policy represent an affront to the US Congress. I will work tirelessly to hold the Administration accountable for this reckless conduct that damages US national security and benefits Cuba's dictators.
Sen. Bill Nelson, meanwhile, said he was "cautiously optimistic" over the deal.
"The success of this monumental development depends on Castro's willingness to grant basic democratic freedoms for the Cuban people," Nelson said in his statement. "Let's see if Castro changes the behavior of a brutal police state and provides freedoms for the Cuban people."
Update: The White House has released photos of Gross arriving at Andrews Air Force Base and greeting officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry.
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