U.S., Cuba move to thaw relations after prisoner exchange

December 17, 2014, 4:59 PM UTC

This post is in partnership with Time. The article below was originally published at Time.com.

By Zeke J. Miller, TIME

The United States will begin efforts to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba and will open an embassy on the island nation following the release of an American government subcontractor and a swap of intelligence assets, President Barack Obama will announce Wednesday. It marks the most significant change in the U.S.-Cuba relationship since the Cuban revolution.

Following a year of secret back-channel talks in Canada and at the Vatican, and culminating with a historic nearly-hour-long call between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro on Tuesday, the Cuban government released 65-year old Alan Gross on Wednesday on humanitarian grounds. His release clears the way for a broad relaxation of the 53-year U.S. embargo on Cuba.

A television shows Cuba's President Raul Castro speaking during a television broadcast in HavanaA television shows Cuba’s President Raul Castro speaking during a television broadcast in Havana, Cuba on December 17, 2014.Photograph by Reuters

In a prisoner swap, Cuba released an unnamed U.S. intelligence asset who has been imprisoned for 20 years, while the U.S. government released the final three members of the spy ring known as the “Cuban Five” remaining in federal prison.

A senior administration official said the U.S. embassy would open “as soon as possible” in Havana.

Gross departed Cuba Wednesday morning on a U.S. government plane. “Mr. Gross was released on humanitarian grounds by the Cuban government at the request of the United States,” an official said. A Cuban court convicted Gross of espionage in 2011 and sentenced him to 15 years in prison for carrying communications devices into Cuba while working as as a subcontractor for United State Agency for International Development setting up Internet access in local communities. According to his attorney, Gross had been in deteriorating health while in prison. Gross arrived at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, D.C., shortly after 11 a.m. Wednesday, accompanied by members of Congress and his wife who had traveld to retrieve him aboard a U.S. Air Force plane.

The White House said Obama would address the nation shortly after noon on Wednesday to mark Gross’ release and to announce the new policy steps. The administration is maximizing the ability of Americans to travel to Cuba within the limits of the American travel ban, Obama will announce. The president is “doing everything in his authority to facilitate travel within the limits of the law,” an official said, adding that the Obama would support congressional efforts to lift the ban. Obama will also announce that his administration is easing economic and financial restrictions on Cuba, including increasing permitted American exports, as well as raising the cap on remittances. U.S. financial institutions will also be allowed to open accounts at Cuban banks to process permitted transactions, and U.S. credit and debit cards will be permitted for use in Cuba for the first time. Obama is also directing Secretary of State John Kerry to launch an immediate review of the 1982 designation of Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, in consultation with intelligence agencies.

Obama cannot unilaterally lift the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba and will not call on Congress to do so in his remarks Wednesday, but a senior Administration official said Obama would “welcome” such a move by lawmakers. Obama has twice-previously relaxed restrictions on Cuba in 2009 and 2011, opening the door for Americans to visit family members in Cuba and allowing travel for religious, educational and cultural endeavors.

Obama’s announcement was quickly criticized by Republicans and Democratic lawmakers who have long defended the embargo. Outgoing Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) blasted Obama’s decision as having “vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government.”

“This asymmetrical trade will invite further belligerence toward Cuba’s opposition movement and the hardening of the government’s dictatorial hold on its people,” Menendez said.

American officials contend that the U.S. policy toward Cuba was antiquated and ineffective, failing to bring down the Castro regime after more than 50 years. They added it has also been a “huge problem” for American relations in the Western Hemisphere, having been “universally criticized” by other countries in the region. “If there’s any policy that has passed its expiration date, it’s the U.S.-Cuba policy,” a senior Administration official said.

In coordination with the American announcements, the Cuban government will announce that it will free 53 prisoners deemed by the U.S. to be political prisoners, American officials said. Additionally, the Cuban government has told the U.S. it intends to expand Internet connectivity for its citizens. But despite objections by the Cuban government, the U.S. will continue to fund so-called democracy programming in Cuba, meant to promote human rights and support the free-flow of information into the communist country.

American officials praised the role of Canada and the Vatican, particularly Pope Francis, in helping bring about the agreement. “Pope Francis personally issued an appeal in a letter that he sent to President Obama and to President Raul Castro calling on them to resolve the case of Alan Gross and the cases of the three Cubans who have been imprisoned here in the United States, and also encouraging the united states and cuba to pursue a closer relationship,” an official said, calling the papal letter “very rare.” “The Vatican then hosted the U.S. and Cuban delegations where we were able to review the commitments that we are making today.”

In a statement earlier this month marking the five-year anniversary of Gross’ arrest, Obama said that if the Castro-led Cuban government released him it would set the stage for other reconciliation efforts.

“The Cuban Government’s release of Alan on humanitarian grounds would remove an impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba,” Obama said.