Seismic Shift In U.S. Policy Toward Cuba Involved Pope And An Unknown Spy

Dec 17, 2014

Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba in 2009. He was released today and returned to the United States.
Credit AP

The most tectonic shift in U.S.-Cuba relations in half a century – and the release of a U.S. citizen from a Cuban prison – were brought about thanks largely to the most famous man in the world (the Pope) and to a man whose identity we may never know.

At the White House today, President Obama announced seismic changes that include re-establishing U.S. diplomatic ties with Havana 53 years after they were severed in the wake of Cuba’s communist revolution. He’ll also make it easier to export capital goods to Cuba. Meanwhile, Cuban leader Raúl Castro said he’ll release 53 political prisoners and increase Internet access and human rights inspections on the island.

Obama and Castro finalized the moves yesterday during something just as momentous – the first direct phone call between U.S. and Cuban heads of state since Castro’s older brother, Fidel, took power in 1959.

At the same time, U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross was freed after five years behind bars in Cuba on questionable spying charges and flown home to his family in Maryland.

Although the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and a ban on U.S. travel to the island remain in effect – only Congress can overturn them – Obama is using the full extent of his executive powers to undo Washington’s policy of isolating Cuba.

The most tectonic shift in U.S.-Cuba relations in half a century was brought about thanks largely to the most famous man in the world and to a man whose identity we may never know.

“It’s time for a new approach,” Obama said, insisting the U.S. can “do more to help the Cuban people and advance our interests through engagement.” He added: “We can’t continue do the same thing for more than 50 years and expect a different result.”

Obama said he’d been considering the policy changes since taking office in 2009, but Gross’ arrest in Cuba that year became “an impediment.”

What helped clear the way to Gross’ release this morning was the intervention of Pope Francis – the first Latin American pontiff – who made a personal appeal last year to both Obama and Castro to agree on mutual policy changes. U.S. officials said the Vatican, in fact, was most recently the site for sealing the Obama-Castro deal.

Just as important was a spy swap – the release of three Cuban agents serving prison sentences in the U.S. in exchange for the freedom of an agent in jail in Cuba whom Obama described as one of the U.S.’s most important intelligent assets there.

U.S. officials said they would not identify that agent. But of all the players involved, he was arguably the linchpin that liberated Gross – and liberalized an outdated U.S. approach to Cuba.