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Alan Gross Release Paves Way For New Chapter In U.S.-Cuba Relations


When Alan Gross walked out before reporters and photographers today, he turned to look at the American flags behind him.


ALAN GROSS: This is great.

BLOCK: He exhaled deeply and went on to speak emotionally, and with humor, of his deep gratitude that after five years in Cuban prison he is finally home.


GROSS: I have to say Chag Sameach and a happy holiday season to all of you. Today is the first day of Hanukkah and I guess so far, it's the best Hanukkah that I'll be celebrating (laughter) for a long time.

BLOCK: The release of Alan Gross, a USAID contractor, cleared the way for a new chapter in U.S. relations with Cuba. NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: At the White House today President Obama said it was time to cut loose of the shackles of the past.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba. In the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years, we will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries.

LIASSON: Secretary of State John Kerry will now begin talks with Cuban officials about opening embassies in both countries, and Kerry will also review Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. The president cannot lift of the 50-year-old U.S. embargo on Cuba on his own - only Congress can do that - but Mr. Obama said he'll begin a debate with Congress about the embargo, which he called ineffective and rigid.


OBAMA: I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.

LIASSON: The deal that paved the way for the changes the president announced included Gross's release and the release of an important U.S. intelligence asset held in Cuban prison for 20 years. The U.S. released three convicted Cuban spies. Gross himself said he fully supported the president's moves, calling them a game changer, and he expressed his respect and fondness for the Cuban people.


GROSS: In no way are they responsible for the ordeal to which my family and I have been subjected. To me, Cubanos, or at least most of them, are incredibly kind, generous and talented. It pains me to see them treated so unjustly as a consequence of two governments' mutually belligerent policies.

LIASSON: But there was plenty of opposition to the president's moves in Congress. Republicans mostly objected. Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants, said the president's move was disgraceful and part of a long record of coddling dictators.


SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: This president is the single worst negotiator we have had in the White House in my lifetime, who has basically given the Cuban government everything it asked for, and received no assurances of any advances of democracy and freedom in return.

LIASSON: When the Republicans take the majority in the Senate next year, Rubio will chair the subcommittee that deals with Cuba policy. He said he would block any attempt to fund a U.S. embassy in Havana or confirm a U.S. ambassador.

Another Cuban-American senator, New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, said the prisoner swap set a dangerous precedent, putting at risk thousands of Americans who work overseas. But the president got support from the business community. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce hailed the move and Democrats were mostly in favor. Retiring Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan pointed out on CNN that the Cold War is over and the U.S. now has normal relations with plenty of other countries whose policies we oppose.


SENATOR CARL LEVIN: And I think it's also right to try to have a more normal relationship with Cuba. After all, it didn't take us five decades to realize that we should have a normal relationship with Communist China. We have absolutely no use for the Chinese Communist leadership, but when President Nixon went to China, he did the right thing.

LIASSON: The timing of the announcement was telling - after the midterm elections - and it follows other post-election actions that President Obama has taken on climate change and immigration. The new Cuba policy is in keeping with the president looking to build his legacy in the two years he has left in office.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.