Alan Gross will return to the US today after spending years in a Cuban prison for espionage. The Obama administration cut a deal for his release that may prompt the most significant change in American policy towards the Castro regime in decades:

Held for five years in Cuba, 65-year-old American contractor Alan Gross has been released from prison and is en route to U.S. soil, ABC News has learned exclusively.

In a landmark humanitarian prisoner exchange to be announced by President Obama shortly at the White House, the agreement was reached following more than a year of secret back channel talks at the highest levels of both governments.

Today’s release of Gross, who is said to be in poor physical condition, represents a first step toward normalizing relations with the neighbor just 90-miles off the Florida coast.

So what what the trade for Gross? Three Cuban spies and an embargo to be named later, it seems:

In return for Gross, the United States has agreed to the humanitarian release of three Cuban agents convicted of espionage in a controversial trial that found them guilty of spying on anti-Castro groups in Miami, but not the U.S. government. All three were most recently held in North Carolina at a federal medical facility for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

The humanitarian release is just the beginning of a promised new relationship with Cuba. The White House is indicating the beginning of new talks on everything from travel restrictions to eventual lifting of the Cuban embargo in place since John F. Kennedy was President.

This is not a new position, or a secret either. The White House made it clear two weeks ago that it would review policy toward Cuba if a deal could be reached to free Gross:


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Q Today the administration noted the six-year anniversary of Alan Gross’s imprisonment in Cuba with a statement that said his release would quote “remove an impediment to more constructive relations between the U.S. and Cuba”.Given President Obama’s previous statements on the embargo, what is on the table if Alan Gross is released soon?Would the U.S. consider removing Cuba from the terrorist list, increase trade, fully lift the embargo?Please help us parse what this important sentence means.

MR. EARNEST:Well, Jim, I don’t think I can get into as much detail as you may like me to, because there are — the President has been clear about his interest in strengthening the relationship between the United States and Cuba.It’s very difficult for us to do that, though, when you have remove the impediment to more constructive relations between the U.S. and Cuba.It’s very difficult for us to do that, though, when you have the Cuban government holding this individual.We believe that Mr. Gross should be released on humanitarian grounds and that the case for that is clear.And we continue to be concerned about his health and his safety.And you’ve seen statements from Mr. Gross’s wife to this effect as well.

But we’re going to continue to work with the Cuban government.But the fact is, Jim, it’s going to be very difficult for us to make progress in that relationship as long as the Cuban government doesn’t take the kinds of steps that we believe are necessary to secure Mr. Gross’s humanitarian release.

Q But is his captivity, or imprisonment now, is that the only thing the administration or the primary thing the administration sees as the impediment to a better relationship with Cuba, a more normalization?

MR. EARNEST:Well, there are a range of concerns that we have with the Cuban government’s refusal to respect some basic human rights.There is a pretty long track record of the Castro regime trampling on the basic human and political rights of people who live in that country.That’s been the source of significant concern in this country for quite some time.But there is a desire to try to strengthen the relationship that exists between the United States and Cuba, but we need to address — I guess more directly, the Castro regime needs to address some of the humanitarian concerns that we’ve raised.

But were not going to be able to make much progress as long as Mr. Gross remains in captivity.He is someone who is an international development worker, and that’s why he was in Cuba; he was trying to open up Internet access for more people in Cuba.And we believe that his release is necessary on humanitarian grounds.

So it won’t be a clear swap, a Gross-for-embargo-end deal, but it will almost demand some kind of quid pro quo now that Gross is on his way home. That’s not a big reach for Barack Obama, who has been skeptical of the Cuba embargo for years but hamstrung by Gross’ imprisonment from doing much about it. ABC News is replaying Obama’s handshake with Raul Castro a year ago almost to the day, an event which Cuban media ignored at the time, and to which Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio — two Senators of Cuban descent — objected at the time.

If this prompts a move to scuttle the embargo, which has done almost nothing to rattle the Castros and their grip on power and has few international supporters, expect to hear more of these objections from Republicans. Gross may be free, but thousands of Cuban political dissidents still languish behind bars. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen warned against showing weakness last year on behalf of those political prisoners in a hearing with John Kerry:

“Mr. Secretary, sometimes a handshake is just a handshake, but when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Castro uses that hand to sign the orders to repress and jail democracy advocates.”

“Could you please tell the Cuban people living under that repressive regime that, a handshake notwithstanding, the U.S. policy toward the cruel and sadistic Cuban dictatorship has not weakened?” she asked.

“Ladies and gentlemen, today is about honoring Nelson Mandela,” Kerry later responded. He added that Obama urged all of the world’s leaders to honor Mandela’s legacy by upholding “basic human rights.”

“And would you say Raul Castro is upholding basic human rights?” Ros-Lehtinen interjected.

“No,” Kerry replied. “Absolutely not.”

That hasn’t changed at all over the last twelve months. Cutting a deal that takes the pressure off of the Castros will only be seen as an abandonment after decades of determined policy toward Cuba about political reform and freedom. No matter whether one thinks the embargo works or not, it will be seen as throwing in the towel to shrug it off, in essence rewarding the Castros for outliving American resolve. Given our recent exit from Iraq and pending exit from Afghanistan, it might have the appearance of an overall retreat of American power and influence on behalf of liberty, a bad trend considering what’s happening in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine at the moment.

UpdateHmmmmmmm:

Cuban President Raul Castro will speak to his nation at noon on Wednesday about relations with the United States, Cuban state television reported.

That sounds like more of a quid pro quo than just a few spies.

Update: Obama will announce a major change in American policy today, not just the swap:

President Barack Obama is also set to announce a broad range of diplomatic and regulatory measures in what officials called the most sweeping change in U.S. policy toward Cuba since the 1961 embargo was imposed. …

For a President who took office promising to engage Cuba, the move could help shape Obama’s foreign policy legacy.

“We are charting a new course toward Cuba,” a senior administration official said. “The President understood the time was right to attempt a new approach, both because of the beginnings of changes in Cuba and because of the impediment this was causing for our regional policy.”

This abrupt change will make Florida a very interesting place for Hillary Clinton in 2016. The Cuban exile community has been firm about playing tough against the Castros, but the younger generation may be moving away from that policy. We’ll see.

Update: Not just an end to the embargo, but full diplomatic relations (via Allahpundit):

Oh, my. That will have the ex-pat community steaming in Florida.

Update: The US and Havana will open embassies in both countries in this deal, of course:

But it appears that the Obama administration did succeed in getting another US intel agent and dozens of political prisoners released as part of the deal, too:

https://twitter.com/gregpinelo/status/545243871782113280

We’ll see how long they stay free.