The United States plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba more than 50 years after they were severed, a major policy shift after decades of hostile ties with the communist-ruled island, President Barack Obama said on Wednesday.

Announcing the end of what he called a "rigid" policy of isolation of Cuba that had been ineffective, Obama said the United States planned to move toward normal ties and would open an embassy in Cuba.

The policy shift will mean a relaxation in some aspects of commerce and transportation between the United States and Cuba, but it does not mean an end to the longstanding trade embargo, which needs congressional approval.

 
 
 

And while travel restrictions that currently make it hard for most Americans to visit will be eased, the door will not yet be open for broad U.S. tourism on the Caribbean island.

Obama discussed the changes with Cuban President Raul Castro on Tuesday in a telephone call that lasted nearly an hour. Castro spoke in Cuba as Obama made his announcement on a policy shift made possible by the release of American Alan Gross, 65, who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years.

Cuba is also releasing an intelligence agent who spied for the United States and was held for nearly 20 years, and the United States in return released three Cuban intelligence agents held in the United States.

Gross' imprisonment had been a block to any movement by Washington toward improved ties. Obama said Pope Francis had played an active role in pressing for his release.

Cuba and the United States have been ideological foes since soon after the 1959 revolution that brought Raul Castro's older brother, Fidel Castro, to power.

They have not had diplomatic relations since 1961 and the United States has maintained a trade embargo on the island, 90 miles (140 km) south of Florida, for more than 50 years. Obama said he would ask Congress to lift the embargo.

Flashpoints in their hostilities included the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Washington's policy has survived the demise of Soviet communism and the end of the Cold War as the United States pushes for democratic reform in Cuba.

In his remarks, Obama said Cuba still needed to make changes. He said Havana needed to make economic reforms and improve human rights.

Cuban American senators were quick to criticize the moves.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida where a large part of the country's Cuban American population lives, said, "The president’s decision to reward the Castro regime and begin the path toward the normalization of relations with Cuba is inexplicable."

Rubio added in a statement he would use his role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Western Hemisphere subcommittee in the new Congress to try to block the plan.

Cuba arrested Gross on Dec. 3, 2009, and sentenced him to 15 years in prison for importing banned technology and trying to establish clandestine Internet service for Cuban Jews. Gross had been working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).