(JNS.org) Following Wednesday's release of Jewish-American aid worker Alan Gross from a Cuban prison, President Barack Obama announced his intent to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba after a five-decade diplomatic stalemate.
Gross was a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development who went to Cuba to help the Jewish community there access the Internet and received a 15-year prison sentence for what the Cuban government called “crimes against the state.” He marked his fifth year of incarceration on Dec. 3, and his health had deteriorated drastically.
Gross's release and the thawing in diplomatic tension are a product of secret negotiations that have lasted for more than a year and were facilitated both by the Canadian government and Pope Francis.
"Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past, so as to reach for a better future for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere and for the world," Obama said in a video statement.
"It's time for a new approach,” he said.
In the wake of Obama's announcement, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been instructed to begin discussions with Cuba on re-establishing diplomatic relations, including the re-opening of an American embassy in Havana. Travel and trade restrictions between Cuba and the U.S., including an embargo that was instated during the John F. Kennedy administration, will also be loosened.
At a news conference in Washington, DC, Gross said that the Cuban people are "in no way" responsible "for the ordeal to which my family and I have been subjected," adding that the majority of Cubans are "incredibly kind, generous, and talented."
Gross said his release on the first day of Hanukkah means that so far this is “the best Hanukkah I’ll be celebrating in a long time."