(CN) - President Barack Obama announced this afternoon that the United States is now engaged in taking sweeping, "historic steps" to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba.
In a televised address at noon the president announced a dramatic series of changes in U.S. policy that will effect everything from Internet access and banking interactions with the island nation to Americans being able to visit for the first time since January 1961.
To facilitate these changes in policy, President Obama directed Secretary of State John Kerry to begin the process of establishing an embassy in Havana, and also announced the U.S. will send a high level delegation led by the Assistant Secretary of State of Western Hemisphere Affairs in January.
The president also said the U.S. will immediately begin the process of rescinding its designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.
These steps, and several more outlined in the course of the 17-minute address, "We will end an outdated approach that has failed to accomplish our objective of promoting the emergence of a democratic, prosperous and stable Cuba."
The president said while the U.S. proudly carried out policies regarding Cuba over the past 50 years that were "rooted in the best of intentions," the reality is that "no other nations joined us in these sanctions and it has had no effect."
"The Castros and the communist party are still in control in Cuba," he said. Rather than inspiring political change on the island, U.S. policies have merely served to keep Cuba isolated in an interconnected world."
But even as he outlined the new White House policy, the president conceded he has no authority to unilaterally lift the U.S. embargo on Cuba, which is codified in legislation.
To make that happen, the president said, he intended to engage in an "honest and serious" debate with Congress.
In a nearly simultaneous remarks, Cuban President Raúl Castro told his country that he and President Obama "have been able to advance solutions of some themes of interest to both nations."
"This decision of President Obama deserves the respect and acknowledgment of our people," Castro said.
The breakthrough is being called the biggest development in U.S.-Cuban relations in five decades.
The historic agreement comes after 18 month of secret talks facilitated by Canada, and championed by Pope Francis, who hosted a meeting of negotiators at the Vatican. It was finalized during a 45-minute phone call between President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro on Tuesday.
The culmination of all this diplomatic activity comes in the wake of this morning's release of two Americans who were being held in Cuban prisons. One of those individuals is an unidentified American Intelligence officer who the president said had been imprisoned for 20 years.
The other is American contactor Alan Gross, who was serving a 15-year sentence in a Cuban prison for bringing satellite and computer equipment into the Island nation without proper permits.
The Cuban government claimed these acts were effectively espionage carried out under the guise of Gross's working for the U.S. Agency for International Development. The U.S. and Gross's attorneys have always denied those charges.
As part of the agreement to start talking about the normalization of ties between the two countries, the United States this morning released three Cuban spies who were arrested in Miami in 2001.
Gross was arrested on December 3, 2009. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison on March 12, 2011. He later appealed his case to the Supreme Court of Cuba, which affirmed the sentence in August 2011.
At the time the Cuban News Agency reported he had been convicted of attempting to " destroy the Revolution through the use of communication systems out of the control of authorities."
Gross, who turned 65 in May, has been in failing health since his incarceration, reportedly losing more than 100 pounds while in prison. His condition is said to have worsened dramatically since he went on a nine-day hunger strike in April.
In a statement to the Associated Press, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the son of Cuban immigrants and a potential candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, said the steps the President Obama is expected to announce will do "absolutely nothing to further human rights and democracy in Cuba."
Rather, he said, "[I]t potentially goes a long way in providing the economic lift that the Castro regime needs to become permanent fixtures in Cuba for generations to come."
Rubio was even more pointed in remarks delivered after the president spoke.
"This whole new policy is based on an illusion, on a lie, the lie and the illusion that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people," Rubio said. "All this is going to do is give the Castro regime, which controls every aspect of Cuban of human life, the opportunity to manipulate these changes to stay in power."
Another senator speaking out about today's developments was Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who is also the son of Cuban immigrants.
Menendez, who is the current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Gross should have been released "immediately and unconditionally" at the time of his arrest.
"He committed no crime and was simply working to provide internet access to Cuba's small Jewish community," the senator said.
"Let's be clear, this was not a "humanitarian" act by the Castro regime," Menendez continued. "It was a swap of convicted spies for an innocent American. ... President Obama's actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government. There is no equivalence between an international aid worker and convicted spies who were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage against our nation."
He went on to call the release of the Cuban spies " an extremely dangerous precedent," saying "It invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips."
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