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National

Shift In U.S.-Cuba Relationship Comes After 55 Years Of Tension

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We begin this hour with today's historic and dramatic shift between the United States and Cuba. The sudden opening includes the release of Alan Gross, a USAID contractor who was held in Cuban prison for five years. President Obama also announced the release of three Cuban spies who were convicted and imprisoned in this country. That release was part of a swap in exchange for an unnamed spy who worked for the U.S. - a Cuban man who has been jailed in Cuba for twenty years.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Here's how the president described the new policy toward Cuba.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I've instructed Secretary Kerry to immediately begin discussions with Cuba to reestablish diplomatic relations that have been severed since January of 1961. Going forward, the United States will reestablish an embassy in Havana and high-ranking officials will visit Cuba.

CORNISH: In a moment, we'll hear more about how President Obama came to this new policy and we'll get a view from Havana on the announcement. But first a step back - a look at the 55 years of animosity between the island nation and its northern neighbor.

BLOCK: It was in 1959 that Fidel Castro overthrew a U.S.-backed dictator in the Cuban revolution. Castro then nationalized property belonging to U.S. companies and allied Cuba with the Soviets in the Cold War. President Eisenhower imposed sanctions on Cuba and severed ties with the company - with the country at the end of his presidency in January 1961.

CORNISH: As a presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy proposed overthrowing Castro during a debate. His opponent, Richard Nixon, responded...

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PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: But I do know this - that if we were to follow that recommendation that we would lose all of our friends in Latin America. We would probably be condemned in the United Nations and we would not accomplish our objective.

BLOCK: President Kennedy launched the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. The following year, he addressed the nation when the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

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PRESIDENT JOHN F KENNEDY: Good evening my fellow citizens. This government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island.

CORNISH: Throughout the '60s the U.S. plotted to kill Fidel Castro, or drug him, hatched plans to poison his cigar - his cigars and even make his beard fall out. President George W. Bush officially made regime change America's policy and tightened the U.S. embargo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.