“Neither the American nor the Cuban people are served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born,” Obama said.
While the policy was "rooted in the best of intentions," Obama said, "...it has had little effect."
Obama said he spoke with Cuban President Raul Castro yesterday, the first time the leaders of the two countries have spoken since the Cold War. Obama said he told Castro that Cuban society remains constrained due to restrictions, and said that he is under "no illusion" that barriers to freedom remain for Cuban citizens.
The president also said he looks forward to an "honest and serious debate" with Congress about lifting the embargo on Cuba.
"To the Cuban people, America extends a hand of friendship," Obama said.
Obama also acknowledged criticism of the policy shift. "To those who oppose the steps I'm announcing today, let me say that I respect your passion and share your commitment to liberty and democracy," he said. "The question is how we uphold that commitment. I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result."
Cuba released American Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned for five years, as well as a man who Obama said was one of the most important intelligence agents the United States had in Cuba. The man, who officials said had been imprisoned in Cuba for nearly 20 years, is back in the United States.
Gross landed in the United States Tuesday. The American government released three Cuban nationals who were convicted of spying in the United States.
The change in policy came after more than a year of secret talks between the U.S. and Cuban governments, facilitated by the Canadian governments and the Vatican. Obama said Pope Francis issued him a personal plea on negotiations to release Gross. Obama thanked the pope, as well as the Canadian government, in his remarks.
"Change is hard," Obama said, "but today America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past."