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U.S., Cuba agree to establish diplomatic relations

WASHINGTON — The United States and Cuba have agreed to establish diplomatic relations and open economic and travel ties, marking the most significant shift in U.S. policy toward the communist island in decades, American officials said Wednesday.

The announcement comes amid a series of new confidence-building measures between the longtime foes, including the release of American Alan Gross, as well as a swap for a U.S. intelligence asset held in Cuba and the freeing of three Cubans jailed in the U.S.

President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro separately addressed their nations on Wednesday.

Obama said it’s time to end outdated approach with Cuba while Castro said the two countries have to learn to live with their differences “in a civilized manner.”

The two leaders spoke by phone for more than 45 minutes Tuesday, the first substantive presidential-level discussion between the U.S. and Cuba since 1961.

Wednesday’s announcements follow more than a year of secret talks between U.S. and Cuban officials in Canada and the Vatican. U.S. officials said Pope Francis was personally engaged in the process and sent separate letters to Obama and Castro this summer urging them to restart relations.

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Gross, 65, was on an American government plane bound for the U.S. Wednesday morning after being released on humanitarian grounds by the Cuban government at the request of the Obama administration. As part of the secret negotiations to secure his release, the U.S. was releasing three Cuban jailed in Florida for spying.

Obama administration officials have considered Gross’ imprisonment an impediment to improving relations with Cuba.

In additon to Gross, Cuba was also releasing a non-American intelligence ‘asset’ who’s been imprisoned in Cuba for nearly 20 years. The spy’s identity remains a mystery.

That official and others spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be identified by name before Obama’s remarks.

Bonnie Rubinstein, Gross’ sister, heard the news from a cousin, who saw it on television.

“We’re like screaming and jumping up and down,” she said in a brief telephone interview from her home in Texas.

Gross was detained in December 2009 while working to set up Internet access as a subcontractor for the U.S. government’s U.S. Agency for International Development, which does work promoting democracy in the communist country. It was his fifth trip to Cuba to work with Jewish communities on setting up Internet access that bypassed local censorship.

Cuba considers USAID’s programs illegal attempts by the U.S. to undermine its government, and Gross was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The three Cubans released in exchange for Gross are part of the so-called Cuban Five — a group of men who were part of the “Wasp Network” sent by Cuba’s then-President Fidel Castro to spy in South Florida. The men, who are hailed as heroes in Cuba, were convicted in 2001 in Miami on charges including conspiracy and failure to register as foreign agents in the U.S.

Two of the Cuban Five were previously released after finishing their sentences.

In a statement marking the fifth anniversary of Gross’ detention earlier this month, Obama hinted that his release could lead to a thaw in relations with Cuba.

“The Cuban Government’s release of Alan on humanitarian grounds would remove an impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba,” Obama said in a statement.

Gross’ family has said he was in ailing health. His wife, Judy, said in a statement earlier this month that Gross has lost more than 100 pounds, can barely walk due to chronic pain, and has lost five teeth and much of the sight in his right eye. He has begun refusing to see his wife and daughter, the new chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and members of Cuba’s small Jewish community, who had been visiting him on religious holidays.

Obama has taken some steps to ease U.S. restrictions on Cuba after Raul Castro took over as president in 2010 from his ailing brother. He has sought to ease travel and financial restrictions on Americans with family in Cuba, but has resisted calls to drop the embargo.

Obama and Raul Castro shook hands and exchanged pleasantries last year while both attended a memorial service in South Africa for Nelson Mandela.

The surprise prisoner swap has echoes of the deal the U.S. cut earlier this year to secure the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held by the Taliban. In exchange for his release in May, the U.S. turned over five Taliban prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

JULIE PACE AND MATTHEW LEE, Associated Press

Associated Press writers Jessica Gresko, Jack Gillum and Ken Dilanian contributed to this report.