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US and Cuba set to start talks to normalize diplomatic relations

Announcement from White House comes after news US contractor Alan Gross will be freed

A 2013 protest in Washington to get Alan Gross released.

The United States and Cuba are prepared to start talks aimed at reestablishing full diplomatic relations between the two countries, and the reopening of an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than 50 years, the White House confirmed on Wednesday.

The news comes on the same day that the government of US President Barack Obama announced that US contractor Alan Gross had been released by the Cuban authorities. The detention of Gross had been one of the major sticking points for the improvement of relations between Washington and Havana.

According to US media reports, the freeing of the 65-year-old American involved the handover of prisoners: Gross in exchange for three Cubans given long jail sentences for spying, and whom Cuba consider to be “heroes.”

“This morning, Alan Gross left Cuba in a US government plane headed for the United States,” a senior government official told the press on Wednesday. Gross was serving a 15-year sentence for, according to the Cuban authorities, “violating Cuban law, by implementing a subversive program financed by the United States government, via the establishment of illegal and covert communications, with the use of non-commercial technology.” He was freed for “humanitarian reasons on the request of the US,” added the same source, without giving further details.

Those details will be delivered by Barack Obama himself, who has announced that he will be making a statement about Cuba at 6pm Spanish time. The president is expected to explain the terms of the agreement, which, according to the CNN news network, will include a “wide spectrum of diplomatic and legal measures, considered to be the greatest changes in US policy toward Cuba since the start of the embargo more than half a century ago.”

An announcement was also made on Cuban television that the president of Cuba, Raúl Castro, would also be making a speech at 6pm Spanish time, according to the Reuters news agency.