US - Cuba will ease decades-old embargo after prisoner swap

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By RYAN GORMAN

The U.S. will work to ease its embargo against Cuba.

The stunning announcement came only hours after it was revealed American prisoner Alan Gross and an unnamed intelligence agent were freed from Cuban prisons in exchange for three Cuban spies jailed in the U.S.

Gross had been behind bars for five years, the agent for at least two-decades.

Both U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro made simultaneous announcements on national television detailing the historic thaw in relations between the two countries.

Obama told a stunned world audience that the U.S. will begin to normalize relations with Cuba for the first time since President John F. Kennedy enacted an embargo in 1961, the same year the president was born.

"Isolation has not worked," Obama said in a speech from the Cabinet Room. "It's time for a new approach."

The first step in that process will be the opening of a U.S. Embassy in Havana. Travel and trade restrictions are expected to be eased as well.

The discussions reportedly included a direct phone call between Obama and Castro, the first such communication between sitting U.S. and Cuban presidents since Fidel Castro first rose to power during the Cuban Revolution.

"I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result," said Obama.

Pope Francis was directly involved in brokering the discussion, the president said, thanking him for his efforts to make the deal possible.

Gross, 65, is finally home after five years in a Cuban prison. Images from his landing in Florida showed a jubilant reunion with his wife -- the first time he had seen her in five years.

The conditions of the prisoner swap also included a provision that required Cuba to grant further Internet freedoms to its citizens, as well as other reforms to provide more "self-determination" and "dignity" to the Cuban people, according to Obama.

The Washington Post is also reporting that Rajiv Shah, the head of USAID, a non-profit that infamously tried to infiltrate the island nation through its underground hip-hop scene, is stepping down.

Gross was detained in December 2009 while working for USAID, but as a subcontractor helping to set up Internet access for Jewish communities on the island that would bypass government censors.

The agency heavily promotes democracy on the Communist island.

In another move that flew under the radar for many, Cuban baseball players were permitted last year by the Castro regime to play in the Major Leagues without defecting. Players who previously defected were banned from returning and their families sometimes faced harsh punishments.

Players previously had to jump through many hoops, star Yankees pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez famously rode a makeshift boat to Florida, in order to play baseball abroad.

This is a developing story, more information will come as it is made available.

Related links:
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