RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
There's news this morning as the United States and Cuba announce a major shift in relations. Today, Cuba released American Alan Gross, whose been in jail there for five years. The U.S. is releasing three Cubans. Both President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro will outline the new policies later today. We go now to NPR's Michele Kelemen at the State Department. Good morning.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: What do we know about those upcoming announcements?
KELEMEN: Well, it's really a remarkable time here. President Obama talked to Cuba's President Raul Castro for nearly an hour yesterday weâre told and agreed on the prisoner exchanges, but also some policy shifts. Obama plans to increase travel and trade and restore diplomatic relations that broke off in 1961. So that's going to include plans to open an embassy in Havana, for instance. Though, authorities say that's going to take some time. Weâre also told that this has been in the works for some time now that U.S. and Cuban officials have been meeting since June of 2013, mostly in Canada. We're also told that the Vatican played a major role, encouraging the negotiations, but also encouraging the release of Alan Gross.
MONTAGNE: And remind us of the circumstances of Alan Gross's arrest.
KELEMEN: Well, he was a contractor - a subcontractor - for USAID and was helping Cuba's small Jewish community get connected with the Internet. It's part of the U.S. democracy programs that Havana never likes. And Gross has been in jail since 2009. He was convicted of espionage. His family says he lost a hundred pounds in prison and that the 65-year-old was in poor health, so this is a huge relief for his family, but it also makes it easier for the U.S. to move ahead with improving ties. You know, U.S. officials kept stressing that he was released on humanitarian grounds and they say heâs not part of a prisoner swap.
MONTAGNE: Although, there are three Cubans that have been released. What do you know about them?
KELEMEN: That's right. The U.S. agreed to release the remaining three of the so-called Cuban five â osthose are the te baCs Cubanswh owere convicted of spying on anti-Castro groups in Florida. Two of them had already returned to Cuba after being paroled and now the U.S. is sending the remaining three home. The U.S. officials say that was in return for a U.S. intelligence asset, who they say have helped them over the years and had been in a Cuban jail for twenty years.
MONTAGNE: And these three Cubans who were released, how long had they been in prison?
KELEMEN: Since the late 1990s - 1998.
MONTAGNE: And, Michele, how do you think this will go over here in the U.S. - because there are Cuban-Americans who are very resistant to any improved ties with Cuba.
KELEMEN: Thatâs right. Weâre already hearing from some of them. Senator Robert Menendez - he's the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a Democrat from New Jersey. He said that the release of Alan Gross was not humanitarian act, that it was a swap of convicted spies for an innocent American. And he already said that he feels that is going to invite further belligerence from Cuba. The White House line is, you know, that overall the approach hasn't worked with Cuba. The Castro family is still in power. The U.S. will be more effective in promoting change on the island if there are more contacts is what the White House is arguing right now.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen at the State Department. Thanks very much.
KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.