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cigar diplomacy

Explainer: What's the new deal between the US and Cuba?

Wondering what’s going on between the US and Cuba? Find out here…

YESTERDAY SAW PRESIDENT Barack Obama announce that full diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba are set to be restored.

This will mean a number of shifts in the way the two countries interact with each other and an opening of the channels of dialogue.

But exactly what changes will be implemented? And why has this come now after all the years of stand off?

The New York Times / YouTube

 How did this all get started?

Things have been pretty frosty between the two nations for the best part of fifty years now.

You may recognise these two handsome fellas…

Cuba Labor Day AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

That’s Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and former President of Cuba Fidel Castro. They were part of an insurgency group that traveled to Cuba from Mexico as part of the ’26th of July Movement’.

The group took power from US backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in a revolutionary insurgency in 1959.

Initially declaring themselves only as Cuban nationalists, there was a brief back and forth over whether the new group would declare allegiance to the West or to Communism – in which time Castro visited the United States and met the then Vice-President Richard Nixon.

The group eventually made clear their alliance with the Soviet Union.

This was followed by the United States placing an economic embargo on Cuba in October 1960, followed a year later by the severing of diplomatic relations.

Politics - Castro & Nixon Fidel Castro pictured with Richard Nixon Topham Picturepoint / Press Association Images Topham Picturepoint / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

During this time the economic restrictions placed on Cuba by the embargo have ensured that people within the country have endured impoverished conditions – depending on the Soviet Union for aid during most of their existence.

Despite this, the position the Communist Party of Cuba – the only political party allowed to govern – has remained solid.

Fidel Castro, and since 2011 his brother Raúl Castro, have managed to avoid serious internal opposition – with the hard conditions within the State blamed on the actions of the United States.

While there has been a number of ups and downs in the relationship between the two countries – including the failed Bay of Pigs operation in 1961 and the 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis – for better or worse, economic and diplomatic interaction has remained frozen for the last fifty three years.

What is going to happen now?

The new announcement by the US President yesterday will now see the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the two countries marked with the opening of a US embassy in Havana for the first time in more than fifty years.

In his speech, Obama stated that the move is, “the most significant change in our policy in fifty years, we will end an outdated approach”.

The agreement is the outcome of secret negotiations that have been taking place over the past 18 months that have involved phone calls between Raúl Castro and Barack Obama – which have been brokered in part by Pope Francis.

While the changes are significant, further action would be required by the US Congress for restrictions to be fully lifted.

There will now be wider terms of travel between the two countries – which will see those with certain reasons for visiting either country given dispensation to do so.

Chile Cuba US A woman in Santiago, Chile yesterday in the Cuban embassy celebrating the change in relations AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Where the most change will be seen is in the financial relationship between the two countries. US citizens will now be able to open accounts in Cuban financial institutions and use their credit and debit cards while in Cuba.

The amount of money that Cubans living in the US are able to send back to their families at home will be raised from $500 a quarter to $2,000.

Most symbolically perhaps – US citizens will now be able to import $400 of goods back into the US, including $100 worth of tobacco product – meaning US citizens can look forward to getting their hands on Cuban cigars legally.

The status of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism will now also be reviewed by Secretary of State John Kerry.

Who is Alan Gross?

The heart of what has happened between the US and Cuba has been a historical political prisoner swap deal.

Alan Gross is a 65-year-old aid worker who was jailed by Cuba in 2009 on suspicion of conspiring to undermine the Cuban government. This was due to Gross’s illegally smuggling equipment into the country with the intention of expanding internet access for Cubans.

US Cuba Alan Gross appearing at a press conference yesterday after his release AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

During his time in Cuban prison Gross was said to have experienced serious weight loss and health issues.

In exchange for Gross’s release, Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, and Ramón Labañino were released by the United States. The three men had been Cuban agents part of a group known as the ‘Cuban 5′ who had been imprisoned for spying on anti-Castro activists in Miami.

Why is this important?

In the United States the Cuban community are a very important lobbying interest – who sit alongside the pro-Israeli lobby and the National Rifle Association in their influence over legislation.

The Cuban lobby are seen to hold a large amount of sway in the US state of Florida – which has traditionally been a crucial swing state in the US Presidential elections.

With an election coming up next year, the shift in approach has not been welcomed by the members of this group. The Cuban-American lobby is, generally speaking, strongly opposed to support of the Castro regime.

Cuba US A woman in Havana yesterday celebrating the release of Cuban prisoners in exchange for Alan Gross AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Obama is gambling that this influence will not be felt as strongly next year due to a shift in attitudes among younger Cuban-Americans – who are more open to dialogue between the two countries. 

The deal is also extremely important for the Cubans in Cuba – as they will now be able to look forward to greater freedom of movement.

The Castro regime has long been criticised for its poor human rights record and lack of free press. Citizens on the Island will now be afforded greater access to the internet, as well as UN and Red Cross officials being allowed to return to the territory.

Read: Who helped get the US and Cuba talking again? The Pope, apparently

Also: End of an era: After more than 50 years, the US and Cuba are talking again

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