Pick up the phone, Mr. President! Make the call!” That was Alan Gross’s demand when I visited him in a Havana prison a year ago, expressing his desperation at being seemingly abandoned by the government that had sent him on a secret mission to foster regime change in Cuba.
But, unbeknownst to Gross, Obama was already working the phones—communicating with the pope, the Canadian government and Senator Patrick Leahy, among others, in a secret, high-stakes diplomatic effort to not only secure Gross’s freedom but liberate US policy from its Cold War past and finally move relations with Cuba into the modern era.
After eighteen months of back-channel diplomacy, on December 16, Obama made “the call” to President Raúl Castro—the first time US and Cuban presidents have spoken by phone since the Cuban Revolution in 1959. For forty-five minutes, the two reviewed the final details of a comprehensive deal: Cuba would set Gross free, ending five years of incarceration; the Cubans would also release Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a CIA asset who had been in a Cuban prison for nearly twenty years for sharing intelligence with his US handlers on Cuban spying in the United States—information that had directly led to the arrest of the “Cuban Five” in September 1998. In a spy-for-spy swap, the Obama administration would set free the three remaining members of that espionage ring, known in Cuba as Red de Avispas, “the Wasp Network.”
Far more dramatically, however, the two presidents agreed to a Caribbean détente, bringing an end to the often violent hostility that has dominated US-Cuban relations for fifty-five dark years. The two nations would upgrade their “interest sections” to full embassy status and name ambassadors. The State Department would remove Cuba from its list of “state sponsors of terrorism.” Using his executive powers, Obama promised to expand the ability of US commercial interests to conduct business in Cuba, and Google would no longer be restricted on the island. Citizens of the United States would be free to travel to Cuba in far greater numbers and, for the first time, use credit cards during their trip! (Cigar aficionados will be able to buy Cohibas and Montecristos; rum drinkers can once again buy a bottle or two of Havana Club or Santiago de Cuba añejo.) In a gesture to address US concerns about human rights, the Cuban government would release fifty-two political prisoners.
“We propose to the government of the United States the adoption of mutual steps to improve the bilateral atmosphere and advance toward normalization,” said Raúl Castro when he spoke on Cuban television at noon the next day.
In the newfound spirit of equality and collaboration, Obama announced the radical change in US policy at exactly the same time. In language seldom, if ever, heard from the White House, the president bluntly characterized the abortive invasions, covert assassination plots, and ineffectual and counterproductive trade embargo as “an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests.” The United States, he stated in a new tone to go with the new policy, “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.”