US-Cuba deal: Obama and Castro 'cut the shackles'

Many welcome the 'long overdue' move to normalise relations with Cuba, but Obama faces fierce opposition from Republicans

US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro in South Africa in 2013
(Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

The move to normalise relations between the US and Cuba has been welcomed by many, after the two nations' presidents, Barack Obama and Raul Castro, agreed an historic deal to end the diplomatic rift that has lasted over 50 years.

The US is finally choosing "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", said President Obama in a televised address.

Relations between the two countries have been frozen since 1961 when the US severed diplomatic ties and imposed a trade embargo after the country's revolution, which ushered in a communist regime.

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Obama admitted that the past five decades of sanctions have shown that "isolation does not work", and announced a raft of new measures that would increase the flow of people and capital between the two nations.

A prisoner swap was part of the Vatican-brokered deal, with US aid worker Alan Gross and an unnamed intelligence "asset" being released from Cuban prison and the US agreeing to free three Cuban nationals. Obama also agreed to review Cuba's designation as a sponsor of terrorism and establish an embassy in Havana.

The role of Pope Francis in the negotiations is highlighted by The Guardian, which calls the deal "the biggest success for the Vatican's ultra-discreet diplomacy for at least 30 years".

In his own televised address, Raul Castro said both countries needed "to learn the art of living together in a civilised manner in spite of our differences". Bells rang out across Havana when the news broke, but he tempered expectations by saying: "This in no way means that the heart of the matter has been solved."

Such a deal would not have happened under the leadership of Raul Castro's brother, Fidel, says the Daily Telegraph's Phillip Sherwall. Fidel "would never have countenanced a rapprochement" and that his younger brother was forced to negotiate with its neighbouring superpower for "economic survival".

But the deal could end up as President Obama's main foreign policy legacy, says the New York Times. The paper, which has long been pushing for a lifting of the embargo, welcomed an end to what it called "the most misguided chapters in American foreign policy" and called Obama "courageous" for taking such strong steps to end hostilities between the two countries.

While supporting the move in principle, some within Obama's own Democratic Party worry about ongoing human rights abuses. "I remain concerned about human rights and political freedom inside Cuba, but I support moving forward toward a new path with Cuba," senator Harry Reid told USA Today.

And the move is proving even more controversial within the Republican-led Congress. Obama needs the support of Congress to lift the trade embargo with Cuba, but many have vowed to fight his plans.

"It's absurd and it's part of a long record of coddling [to] dictators and tyrants," Republican senator Marco Rubio told Fox News, claiming Obama is "constantly giving away unilateral concessions ... in exchange for nothing".

Jeb Bush, the son and brother of former US Presidents George and George W Bush, takes a similar line. "I don't think we should be negotiating with a repressive regime to make changes in our relationship [until Cuba changes]", he said.

"Given Cuba's complicated history with the United States, it's all but certain that this new chapter will include suspicion and backsliding," concedes the New York Times. "Leaders in both countries must make every effort to deal with those in a rational, constructive way."

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