Historic Moment {Video} Obama & United States Reopen Embassy With Castro & Cuba

Published On December 18, 2014 | By admin | Local & Worldwide News

WASHINGTON — The deal that freed an American jailed in Cuba and ended 53 years of diplomatic estrangement between the United States and Cuba was blessed at the highest levels of the Holy See but cut in the shadowy netherworld of espionage.

A personal appeal from Pope Francis, American officials said, was critical in persuading Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, to agree to a prisoner swap and the freeing of the American aid worker Alan P. Gross. The pope, officials said, acted as a “guarantor” that both sides would live up to the terms of a deal reached in secret.

The most tangible breakthrough, however, came almost a year into the talks, when the United States, at loggerheads with Cuba, proposed to swap three Cuban agents jailed in the United States for a Cuban working for American intelligence who had been held in a jail in Cuba for nearly 20 years.

By introducing another figure to the talks — the kind of horse-trading that was standard in Cold War spy swaps — the White House was able to sidestep the appearance that it was trading Cuban spies directly for Mr. Gross. Cuba had sought a straight swap but the United States resisted, saying Mr. Gross had been wrongfully imprisoned.

All told, the negotiations to free Mr. Gross and reopen ties with Cuba took a year and a half. In nine meetings, held in Canada and the Vatican, a tiny circle of aides to Mr. Castro and President Obama hashed out the gritty details as well as grand questions of history.

Looming over their efforts was a mounting fear among the Americans that Mr. Gross’s health was deteriorating. Several months ago, Secretary of State John Kerry warned Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, that if Mr. Gross died in captivity, all of the administration’s efforts to reopen relations with Cuba would be for naught.

Word of the talks was kept under extraordinarily tight wraps, but in March, Mr. Obama brought in an influential outsider. The president briefed Pope Francis, who was born in Argentina and is the first head of the Roman Catholic church from Latin America, in a one-on-one meeting over a spare desk adorned with a gold crucifix at the Vatican. Days later, the pope wrote letters to Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro, appealing to both to keep pushing for an agreement.

“You just cannot overstate the importance of this pope,” said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations. “This pope, coming from the region, has a resonance with leaders in the region, including Cuba.”

Obama’s First Move

The seeds of this week’s opening were laid soon after Mr. Obama took office in 2009, when he loosened restrictions on the ability of Cuban-Americans to visit relatives and send money to their families there. In April 2009, Mr. Obama told a gathering of Western Hemisphere leaders that the United States sought “a new beginning with Cuba.”

But the thaw quickly froze again in December 2009 when Mr. Gross, a contractor for the United States Agency for International Development, was arrested and accused of crimes against the Cuban state for bringing telecommunications equipment into the country. The State Department began a long, fruitless campaign for his release.

Hillary Rodham Clinton described her failure to win Mr. Gross’s freedom as one of her major regrets as secretary of state. But as she prepared to leave the State Department, she nevertheless wrote a memo to Mr. Obama urging him to reconsider the trade embargo against Cuba.

The president had been leaning in the same direction, officials said, and when he and his aides laid out their foreign-policy priorities for the second term, they put Cuba near the top. When the Cuban government loosened some restrictions on travel for its citizens, Mr. Obama decided the time was right to make a higher-level diplomatic overture.

To spearhead the effort, he chose two young aides: Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser and speechwriter, and Ricardo Zuniga, a Cuba expert of Honduran descent, who is the National Security Council’s senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs. Mr. Zuniga, who had worked at the American Interests Section in Havana, was recruited to the White House to help with such an effort, a senior official said, while Mr. Rhodes had been involved in the White House’s opening to Myanmar.

For months, the two men took commercial flights to Canada to meet with an only slightly larger delegation from Cuba, a senior official said. The meetings usually lasted a day but sometimes stretched to a second day.

A Canadian government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said Canada arranged locations in Toronto and in Ottawa for about seven meetings. Canada did not participate in the talks.

“I don’t want to exaggerate Canada’s role,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “But look, I’m pleased the president acknowledged our role in this.”

What Cuba Wanted

In the early stages of the talks, officials said, it was not clear to the Americans what the Cuban government most wanted. Was it an end to American-sponsored pro-democracy programs? Did Cuba want to be taken off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism? Or was it the release of the Cuban Five, five Cuban intelligence officers convicted of espionage and, in one case, murder?

The Cuban negotiators, for example, repeatedly objected to the American military prison at Guantánamo Bay.

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