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Obama Announces Diplomatic Thaw With Cuba

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The United States and Cuba are separated by 90 miles of water and a half century of hostility. President Obama wants to bridge that divide. He's reopening diplomatic ties with Cuba and easing restrictions on travel and trade between the two countries. The move comes after more than a year and a half of secret negotiations brokered in part by Pope Francis. But as NPR's Scott Horsley reports, there is nothing secret about Obama's strategy. He's been telegraphing it since his first run for the White House.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced the diplomatic thaw with simultaneous speeches yesterday. Obama calls it the most significant change in Cuba policy in more than 50 years.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries.

HORSLEY: Obama has argued for years that simply isolating enemies is counterproductive. As a candidate in 2007, he told a debate audience he'd be willing to meet unconditionally with leaders of Iran, North Korea and Cuba.

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OBAMA: The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them, which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration, is ridiculous.

HORSLEY: Soon after taking office, Obama began pushing for a new beginning with Cuba. But any effort to reopen ties was frustrated by the arrest of Alan Gross - a USAID contractor working in Cuba. Gross's release yesterday cleared the way for what Obama calls a new chapter in U.S.-Cuba relations. Gross thanked the president and said he welcomes the end of the long-running stalemate.

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ALAN GROSS: Five-and-a-half decades of history show us that such belligerence inhibits better judgment. Two wrongs never make a right.

HORSLEY: Obama's decision won't lift the U.S. embargo of Cuba, only Congress can do that. But the administration is pushing to allow as much trade, travel and personal contact with Cuba as possible under existing law.

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OBAMA: Nobody represents America's values better than the American people. And I believe this contact will ultimately do more to empower the Cuban people.

HORSLEY: Obama believes growing contact will help spark political change in Cuba. It's already reshaping the political landscape in this country. While Republicans Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio quickly denounced the president's move as rewarding Cuba's dictators, polls show more Americans now lean in favor of renewed ties. Julia Sweig at the Council on Foreign Relations says that includes some conservative Republicans in Florida.

JULIA SWEIG: Even Cuban-Americans who for many, many years voted Republican, were staunchly anti-Castro, and vowed never to go back to Cuba with the Castros in power, are now feeling and voicing and acting on the notion that they want to participate in Cuba's future.

HORSLEY: White House aides also expect the President's moved to win support throughout Latin America. The U.S. embargo has often been a distraction at hemispheric summit meetings from which Cuba has been excluded. Sweig says that should change when Cuba is invited to a summit this spring.

SWEIG: I think this president is going to get an enormous amount of support from most of the heads of state in Latin America, so by the time we get to the summit of the Americas, we're going have a very different vibe there than we've had for the last few years.

HORSLEY: Americans traveling to Cuba can celebrate that new vibe and even bring home $100 worth of Cuban cigars.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.