On Dec. 17, the Cuban government released former U.S. contractor Alan Gross in exchange for three Cuban spies who have been held in the United States since 1998. Havana also released a U.S. intelligence source who has been held in Cuba for nearly 20 years and, at the United States’ behest, 53 prisoners held in Cuba. U.S. President Barack Obama is set to make an announcement later today concerning the exchange and the United States' new policy toward Cuba. Obama is expected to declare a relaxation of restrictions on banking transactions, trade and travel to Cuba. The United States could also move to take Cuba off its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The prisoner release, which the two countries had been negotiating for nearly a year, is the most significant shift to occur in U.S.-Cuba relations in several decades. The deal could be the first step toward the normalization of political ties between the two nations, a development Stratfor has been expecting. The upcoming Organization of American States summit in April 2015 will provide an opportunity for more direct engagement between Havana and Washington.
Cuba is likely moving toward a political opening with the United States because Venezuela, its current patron, is caught in an economic spiral worsened by the recent drop in oil prices. Venezuela's steadily decreasing patronage could eventually put the Cuban government in a tenuous financial position that would be unsustainable in the long run. How and when the United States ends the embargo on Cuba will likely depend on domestic U.S. politics. Although the president can recommend to Congress that the Cuban embargo should be lifted, lawmakers would still have to formally approve its removal. Consequently, the full normalization of relations will most likely continue to play out in the months to come, but today’s prisoner swap was a necessary first step for a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations.