Weekly Address: America's Resurgence Is Real

In this week's address, the President reflected on the significant progress made by this country in 2014, and in the nearly six years since he took office.
This past year has been the strongest for job growth since the 1990s, contributing to the nearly 11 million jobs added by our businesses over a 57-month streak. America is leading the rest of the world, in containing the spread of Ebola, degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL, and addressing the threat posed by climate change. And earlier this week, the President announced the most significant changes to our policy towards Cuba in over 50 years.
America's resurgence is real, and the President expressed his commitment to working with Congress in the coming year to make sure Americans feel the benefits.

Yes, Congress Can End the Cuba Embargo

Yesterday, President Obama announced that he’s moving to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and to ease the half-century U.S. embargo on Cuba. President Obama urged Congress to end the embargo completely, calling the embargo a failure.

Not surprisingly, Republicans like Senator Marco Rubio attacked the President’s diplomatic initiative.  That’s why we’re pushing back, urging Americans to contact Congress in support of President Obama’s call to end the embargo. You can a our MoveOn petition to Congress here: 


Republicans like Rubio got a lot of media play for their criticism of the President’s move. But Rubio doesn’t speak for all Republicans. Many Republicans support getting rid of the embargo – that’s a key reason that this is a winnable fight. 

I documented Republican support for ending the embargo in a piece just published at Truthout. You can read and share that here:
Can Congress End the Cuba Embargo? Many Republicans Want the Embargo to Fall

YEAR IN REVIEW: Creating Economic Opportunity for All Americans in 2014

President Obama took office in the depths of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  Six years later, thanks to the grit and determination of the American people, and the decisive actions he took early on – to bring the economy back from the brink, to save the auto industry, and to build a new foundation for middle-class growth – we've made real progress. 

The economy grew at a combined 4.2% pace in the second and third quarters of this year, the strongest six-month period of growth in more than a decade.  American businesses have added new jobs for 57 consecutive months, the longest streak of private-sector job creation on record, for a total of 10.9 million new jobs. The pickup in the pace of job growth this year has come in industries with higher wages.  And wages across the economy are rising – a very welcome sign for millions of American families.

The U.S. economic recovery took a major step forward in 2014, achieving a number of important milestones:

·         Jobs: By November, 2014 was already the best year of job growth since 1999.
·         Manufacturing: The manufacturing sector added 15,000 jobs per month, and the average workweek for those workers is the highest since World War II.
·         Education: The high school graduation rate is the highest on record, and more Americans are earning post-secondary degrees than ever before – the surest pathway to the middle class.
·         Energy:  America is now the number one oil and gas producer in the world.  For the first time in nearly two decades, we produce more oil than we buy from abroad.  And we’ve put tens of thousands of Americans to work harnessing energy from the wind and the sun.  Just last month, President Obama and President Xi jointly announced the two countries’ respective post-2020 climate targets in Beijing – a move that will spark investment and innovation in clean energy technology and represent a substantial opportunity for U.S. companies.
·         Housing: The continued rise in home prices has cut the number of underwater mortgages from a peak of 14 million to less than 4 million, and the share of mortgages in delinquency or foreclosure has been cut in half.
·         Health Care:  Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, 10 million Americans have gained health insurance in the past year alone. Meanwhile, due in part to reforms in the law, the price of health care has been rising at the slowest rate in nearly 50 years.
·         The Deficit: Under the President's leadership, the deficit has been cut by nearly two-thirds as a share of the economy – putting America on a more sound financial footing for our kids and grandkids.

The President pledged that 2014 would be a year of action and he has spent the last 12 months working with Congress where he could and taking action on his own where needed to revitalize the economy. He also worked closely with leaders from businesses, nonprofits, education, and communities to expand opportunity for more American families. These efforts have helped contribute to economic progress in a number of ways. Some critical efforts include:

Supporting Job Creation Through Manufacturing and Exports
Manufacturing job growth doubled this year – to about 15,000 jobs per month compared to 7,000 jobs per month last year. In total, since February 2010, the United States has directly added 764,000 manufacturing jobs, with the sector expanding employment at its fastest rate in nearly two decades. And the United States’ renewed competitiveness in manufacturing is bringing production back, with 54 percent of U.S.-based manufacturers surveyed by the Boston Consulting Group actively considering bringing production back from China to the United States, up from 37 percent only 18 months prior. The Administration has helped support these efforts by taking steps including:
  • Launching New Hubs as Part of a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation: President Obama has taken action to launch four more manufacturing innovation institute competitions this year, fulfilling his State of the Union pledge, for a total of eight institutes – representing more than $1 billion of public-private investment – underway, passing the halfway mark on his initial goal of 15 institutes. Each manufacturing institute serves as a regional hub, bridging the gap between applied research and product development by bringing together companies, universities and community colleges, training institutions, and Federal agencies to co-invest in technology areas that lead to new, advanced manufacturing capabilities—and the high-paying jobs that come with them—in the United States. And just this week, a bipartisan coalition of legislators passed the Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation Act of 2013 (RAMI) to formally launch the President’s vision for a national network linking the institutes.
  • Supporting Efforts to Foster Manufacturing Entrepreneurship and Investment in the United States: The Administration helped convene more than 90 mayors who are offering manufacturing entrepreneurs more opportunities to start and grow their businesses, while it also took steps to assist entrepreneurs with securing access to more than $5 billion dollars-worth of cutting edge equipment from the private sector to help start businesses. In addition, the President hosted the first-ever White House Maker Faire to celebrate home-grown manufacturing entrepreneurship and new tools that lower the cost of prototyping.    
  • Growing Our Investments in Advanced Manufacturing Research:To keep America’s manufacturers on the cutting edge, the Administration has increased Federal investments in advanced manufacturing research and development to nearly $2 billion, up over 34 percent from $1.4 billion in 2011.              
  • Another Year of Record-Breaking Exports: U.S. exports of goods and services through the third quarter of 2014 have increased by 3 percent from 2013, putting us on pace for a fifth consecutive year of record exports. Industries driving this growth include automotive vehicles and parts, petroleum products, and consumer goods as well as services exports, such as travel and tourism and financial services. The services export surplus continued to widen in 2014 to more than $176 billion through the first three quarters, up from $168.6 billion through the similar period in 2013.

    • The Made in Rural America Initiative Leads to a Boost in Small Rural Manufacturing Exports and Other Companies: U.S. agricultural exports reached a record $152.5 billion in fiscal year 2014, surpassing last year’s $144 billion. President Obama’s Made in Rural America Initiative, launched in February, convened a summer “Rural Opportunity Investment” conference and hosted six major regional forums and other rural-focused events, providing enhanced export-related assistance and information to more than 1,000 attendees.
    • Intensifying and Broadening Our Export Promotion: In April, the Administration unveiled plans to open new Foreign Commercial Service offices in Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Tunisia, China, and Burma – expanding the Commerce Department’s presence in 78 countries worldwide. The Commerce Department led and certified about 640 companies on 47 trade missions in 2014, up from 490 companies on 44 missions in 2013.
    • The Advocacy Center at the Department of Commerce Enjoyed a Record-Breaking Year in Helping U.S. Firms Win Contracts Abroad to Create Jobs at Home: The Advocacy Center coordinates federal government advocacy for U.S. firms vying with foreign companies for government procurements overseas. In fiscal year 2014, Advocacy Center clients signed a record 90 international procurement contracts, a 50 percent increase from fiscal year 2013. Of the $134 billion in Advocacy Center deal wins, $80 billion was U.S. export content, supporting nearly 400,000 American jobs. Nearly 20 percent of the Advocacy Center’s 2014 wins were small and medium-sized U.S. companies.
Taking Action to Raise the Minimum Wage

Following President Obama’s call on Congress to raise the national minimum wage to $10.10, states, cities and counties, and business leaders have taken action on their own to increase wages across the country. And on February 12, President Obama signed Executive Order 13658, requiring that workers on new Federal contracts be paid $10.10 an hour.

  • 14 States Passed Minimum Wage Increases – and 7 Million Workers Are Set to Benefit From Increases Passed Since the President’s Initial Call in 2013: 14 states passed an increase in the minimum wage this year. According to estimates from the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), about 7 million workers will benefit from increases in the minimum wage that have passed in 17 states and D.C. since the President made his initial call to raise the wage in the 2013 State of the Union.  

  • Cities and Counties Have Also Taken Steps to Raise Wages: Cities like San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia have taken action to raise wages for either all local residents or city contractors.

  • Businesses – Both Large and Small – Are Taking Action: Since the beginning of the year, large companies like Gap Inc., Disney, and IKEA as well as small businesses across the country have announced increases to their starting wages. For example, Gap Inc.’s increase in its starting wage to $10 an hour by next year will benefit 65,000 workers – and has already helped increase applicants for new positions by 10 percent.

  • President Obama’s Action will Ensure that All Employees of Federal Contractors are Paid at Least $10.10 an Hour: Under Executive Order 13658, all new Federal contracts signed after January 1, 2015 will include a provision requiring a minimum wage of at least $10.10 an hour, which will eventually increase pay for hundreds of thousands of workers over time.

Supporting Job Skills and Employment Opportunities

Working with Congress, businesses, states and cities and non-profits, the President has taken action to make sure our job-training system is preparing and connecting Americans to the jobs that employers are looking to fill. From an across-the-board review of our job-training system to new grants that support apprenticeships and help connect the long-term unemployed to work, the President and his Administration have used every tool available to train Americans with the skills they need, and connect them with businesses that are looking for skilled workers.

  • Reforming Our Job-Training System to Make It Demand Driven:Following a Presidential Memorandum signed by the President in January, the Vice President led a review of our job training system designed to make our Federal employment and training programs more focused on preparing workers for jobs in high-demand sectors. Working together, agencies with employment and training programs developed a job-driven training checklist that is designed to ensure that programs fulfill this purpose – and will be applied to grant programs across all agencies. For example, training for vocational rehabilitation counselors now includes training in employer engagement and use of labor market information to identify in-demand fields.

  • Passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act:President Obama signed into law the bipartisan Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which included reforms that the Vice President’s job-driven review had deemed essential, including measuring employment outcomes across all programs, including new measures that illustrate how effectively the workforce system is serving businesses, and requiring training provider scorecards to make it easier for jobseekers to select training programs based on their past results.

  • Getting Long-Term Unemployed Americans Back to Work:President Obama issued a three-part call to action – to employers, to communities across the country, and to federal agencies – to help Americans who are out of work, including the long-term unemployed, find jobs or get the skills they need so they can succeed in the labor force. Since that call to action, long-term unemployment has declined by 1.1 million and progress has been made on all three fronts, including:

    • $170 million in grants awarded in October to programs in 20 states and Puerto Rico to partnerships between non-profits, local government, and employers to train and match long-term unemployed job seekers for in-demand jobs.

    • A new set of best practices for hiring and recruiting the long-term unemployed signed by over 200 businesses – including 80 of the nation’s largest companies – to ensure that these candidates receive a fair shot during the hiring process.

    • Toolkits created by Deloitte Consulting in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation and with the input of about 100 White House Best Practice signatories to help more employers implement the best practices.

    • Finally, following up on a Presidential Memorandum issued in January, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) issued guidance to Federal agencies to ensure that individuals who are unemployed or have faced financial difficulties because of circumstances like job loss receive fair treatment and consideration for employment by Federal agencies.

  • $450 Million in Grants to Nearly 270 Community Colleges Partnering with More than 400 Employers Nationally: In September, the Administration announced the winners of $450 million in job-driven training grants going to nearly 270 community colleges across the country. Administered jointly by the Department of Labor and Department of Education, the grants provide community colleges and other eligible institutions of higher education with funds to partner with employers to expand and improve their ability to deliver education and career training programs that will help job seekers get the skills they need for in-demand jobs in industries like information technology, health care, energy, and advanced manufacturing.

  • Investing in a Competitive Workforce Through Apprenticeships: The Administration has launched a $100 million American Apprenticeship Grants competition, administered by the Department of Labor, to help more workers and employers access this evidence-based training method, and is working with the private sector and states and cities to expand access to apprenticeships, which provide a pathway to good jobs in high-demand fields. 

Providing High-Quality Education to America’s Students

Ensuring that all Americans are prepared for the jobs of the future and strengthening middle-class security, starts with a strong education system. The President has taken a number of steps over the past year to expand access to high-quality early childhood education, connect every student to high-speed Internet, and make college more affordable.

  • Committing to Affordable Higher EducationIn August 2013, President Obama committed to making college more affordable for all Americans during a major speech at the State University of New York Buffalo.  He explained that while a great education is more important than ever, too many students are facing the difficult choice between risking the inability to pay off student loans or forgoing college and suffering reduced lifetime earnings.  This year, the President made significant progress in alleviating this burden for millions of families, graduates, and low-income students.

    • Expanding Pay As You Earn (PAYE): This year the President took action to ensure that – building on past progress made under this Administration -- everyone with a direct student loan can cap their loan payments at 10 percent of their income. For students that need to borrow to finance college, PAYE provides an important assurance that student loan debt will remain manageable.  Because the PAYE plan is based in part on a borrower’s income after leaving school, it shares with students the risk of taking on debt to invest in higher education.  Today an additional 5 million federal student loan borrowers have the opportunity to benefit from PAYE.

    • The President and First Lady’s Call to Action on College Opportunity: The White House hosted a second College Opportunity Summit on December 4, 2014.  This second Summit generated over 600 actions by colleges, universities, and the private sector to improve outcomes for college students, including over 100,000 additional high school graduates prepared for college and hundreds of thousands of additional college graduates.  

    • Protecting Students from Unaffordable Debts at Career College Programs:  The Administration believes that career colleges play an important role in the higher education system.  But too many hard-working students suffer from poor job opportunities and high levels of debt.  That’s why the Administration finalized critical gainful employment regulations that hold career training programs accountable for putting their students on the path to success.  The new rules will ensure that career colleges do not leave student with loans they cannot afford to repay. Due to these regulations, 1,400 programs serving 840,000 students will improve the outcomes for their students-- or lose access to federal student aid.

  • Committing to Early EducationThroughout 2013 and 2014, the President challenged states, business leaders, and Congress to help more children gain access to the early education they need to succeed in school and in life.  On December 10, 2014, the President convened philanthropists, educators, community leaders and others to announce a collective investment of over $1 billion for early childhood education.  Federal commitments of $750 million will support early learning for over 63,000 children while corporate and philanthropic leaders’ independent commitments of $330 million will expand the reach and enhance the quality for thousands more.

  • ConnectED to the Future:  In June 2013, President Obama visited Mooresville, NC to announce the ConnectED Initiative, which aims to ensure 99% of American students will have access to next-generation broadband in the classroom by 2017, and called for private sector leaders and the FCC To help connect our students. Since that time, the FCC has taken steps to modernize the E-rate program to support high-speed connectivity for America’s schools and libraries, providing a $2 billion down payment and passing a proposal that provides recourses needed to meet the President’s ConnectED goals.  Additionally, private-sector companies have committed more than $2 billion in resources to schools to supplement federal actions and help support cutting-edge technologies across a greater number of schools and homes. On November 19, 2014, The President hosted school leaders and educators to push this effort forward and make all schools “Future Ready”.  More than 1,200 superintendents joined the Administrations Future Ready District Pledge to set a vision for digital learning across America.  Combined, this pledge will already reach 10 million students across 16,000 schools. 

President Obama is moving to "normalize" U.S.-Cuba relations after decades of tension

The U.S. will begin talks with Cuba to "normalize" full diplomatic relations and open an embassy in Havana in the coming months after decades of tension with the communist island.

+ President Barack Obama has instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to initiate discussions with Cuba and will reestablish an embassy in Havana in the coming months.

+ The shift also includes further relaxing of travel restrictions, increasing remittance levels, expanding commercial sales and exports from the U.S. and reviewing Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

+ Yes, this also means that legendary ban on Cuban cigars is going up in smoke.

+ This change is long overdue: The U.S. embargo of Cuba has been a complete disaster.

+ Republicans are absolutely livid over the Cuba talks, calling it "appeasement."

+ There are five essential things to know about Obama's historic deal with Cuba.

Today is International Migrants Day

Today (Thursday) is International Migrants Day, and for thousands of Florida's undocumented workers, the threat of deportation is, at least temporarily, behind them.

Their collective sigh of relief is a result of President Obama's Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) program, announced last month. However, as Natalia Jaramillo with the Florida Immigrant Coalition explains, those who are eligible are now busy making sure paperwork is in order so they can take advantage of the program.

"It's going to change many people's lives," Jaramillo says. "People are going to be able to finally be free of fear of being detained and deported, and separated from their families. People are going to be able to work legally."

The Florida Immigrant Coalition is hosting an informational session in Miami today to help those who might be eligible.

An estimated 300,000 Florida residents may be able to defer their deportation. They will be able to apply starting in May.

December 18 was declared International Migrants Day by the United Nations in 2000.

While some immigrants will directly benefit, Jaramillo predicts the DAPA Program will have a positive impact on entire communities.

"If we don't spend our taxes detaining and deporting these people – but instead, give them an opportunity to fully participate in our society – we're going to get a lot of revenues through that," she says. "And our resources are going to be directed toward more important needs for our security."

While groups such as the Florida Immigrant Coalition, United Families and National Latina Institute support the President's administrative relief offered through the program, they emphasize the importance of a permanent solution to the country's immigration crisis.

STATEMENT BY SECRETARY KERRY: Announcement of Cuba Policy Changes

Announcement of Cuba Policy Changes
I was a seventeen year old kid watching on a black and white television set when I first heard an American President talk of Cuba as an "imprisoned island.”
For five and a half decades since, our policy toward Cuba has remained virtually frozen, and done little to promote a prosperous, democratic and stable Cuba.  Not only has this policy failed to advance America's goals, it has actually isolated the United States instead of isolating Cuba.
Since 2009, President Obama has taken steps forward to change our relationship and improve the lives of the Cuban people by easing restrictions on remittances and family travel. With this new opening, the President has committed the United States to begin to chart an even more ambitious course forward. 
Beginning more than twenty years ago, I have seen firsthand as three presidents -- one Republican and two Democrats -- have undertaken a similar effort to change the United States' relationship with Vietnam. It wasn't easy. It isn't complete still today. But it had to start somewhere, and it has worked.
As we did with Vietnam, changing our relationship with Cuba will require an investment of time, energy and resources. Today’s step also reflects our firm belief that the risk and the cost of trying to turn the tide is far lower than the risk and cost of remaining stuck in an ideological cement of our own making.
This new course will not be without challenges, but it is based not on a leap of faith but on a conviction that it's the best way to help bring freedom and opportunity to the Cuban people, and to promote America's national security interests in the Americas, including greater regional stability and economic opportunities for American businesses.
In January, as part of the President’s directive to discuss moving toward re-establishment of diplomatic relations, my Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson will travel to Cuba to lead the U.S. Delegation to the next round of U.S.-Cuba Migration Talks.  I look forward to being the first Secretary of State in 60 years to visit Cuba.  At President Obama’s request, I have also asked my team to initiate a review of Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.
Going forward, a critical focus of our increased engagement will continue to be on improving the Cuban Government’s respect for human rights and advocating for democratic reforms within Cuba. Promoting freedom of speech and entrepreneurship and an active civil society will only strengthen Cuban society and help to reintegrate Cuba into the international community.

Statement by the President on Cuba Policy Changes

obama cuba

 THE PRESIDENT:   Good afternoon.  Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.

In the most significant changes in our policy in more than fifty years, we will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries.  Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people, and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.

There’s a complicated history between the United States and Cuba.  I was born in 1961 –- just over two years after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, and just a few months after the Bay of Pigs invasion, which tried to overthrow his regime. Over the next several decades, the relationship between our countries played out against the backdrop of the Cold War, and America’s steadfast opposition to communism.  We are separated by just over 90 miles. But year after year, an ideological and economic barrier hardened between our two countries.

Meanwhile, the Cuban exile community in the United States made enormous contributions to our country –- in politics and business, culture and sports.  Like immigrants before, Cubans helped remake America, even as they felt a painful yearning for the land and families they left behind.  All of this bound America and Cuba in a unique relationship, at once family and foe.

Proudly, the United States has supported democracy and human rights in Cuba through these five decades. We have done so primarily through policies that aimed to isolate the island, preventing the most basic travel and commerce that Americans can enjoy anyplace else.  And though this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, no other nation joins us in imposing these sanctions, and it has had little effect beyond providing the Cuban government with a rationale for restrictions on its people.  Today, Cuba is still governed by the Castros and the Communist Party that came to power half a century ago.

Neither the American, nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.  Consider that for more than 35 years, we’ve had relations with China –- a far larger country also governed by a Communist Party.  Nearly two decades ago, we reestablished relations with Vietnam, where we fought a war that claimed more Americans than any Cold War confrontation.

That’s why -– when I came into office -– I promised to re-examine our Cuba policy.  As a start, we lifted restrictions for Cuban Americans to travel and send remittances to their families in Cuba.  These changes, once controversial, now seem obvious. Cuban Americans have been reunited with their families, and are the best possible ambassadors for our values.  And through these exchanges, a younger generation of Cuban Americans has increasingly questioned an approach that does more to keep Cuba closed off from an interconnected world.

While I have been prepared to take additional steps for some time, a major obstacle stood in our way –- the wrongful imprisonment, in Cuba, of a U.S. citizen and USAID sub-contractor Alan Gross for five years.  Over many months, my administration has held discussions with the Cuban government about Alan’s case, and other aspects of our relationship.  His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me, and to Cuba’s President Raul Castro, urging us to resolve Alan’s case, and to address Cuba’s interest in the release of three Cuban agents who have been jailed in the United States for over 15 years.

Today, Alan returned home –- reunited with his family at long last.  Alan was released by the Cuban government on humanitarian grounds.  Separately, in exchange for the three Cuban agents, Cuba today released one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba, and who has been imprisoned for nearly two decades.  This man, whose sacrifice has been known to only a few, provided America with the information that allowed us to arrest the network of Cuban agents that included the men transferred to Cuba today, as well as other spies in the United States.  This man is now safely on our shores. 

Having recovered these two men who sacrificed for our country, I’m now taking steps to place the interests of the people of both countries at the heart of our policy.

First, 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.

Where we can advance shared interests, we will -– on issues like health, migration, counterterrorism, drug trafficking and disaster response.  Indeed, we’ve seen the benefits of cooperation between our countries before.  It was a Cuban, Carlos Finlay, who discovered that mosquitoes carry yellow fever; his work helped Walter Reed fight it.  Cuba has sent hundreds of health care workers to Africa to fight Ebola, and I believe American and Cuban health care workers should work side by side to stop the spread of this deadly disease.

Now, where we disagree, we will raise those differences directly -– as we will continue to do on issues related to democracy and human rights in Cuba.  But I believe that we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement.  After all, these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked.  It’s time for a new approach.

Second, I’ve instructed Secretary Kerry to review Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.  This review will be guided by the facts and the law.  Terrorism has changed in the last several decades.  At a time when we are focused on threats from al Qaeda to ISIL, a nation that meets our conditions and renounces the use of terrorism should not face this sanction.

Third, we are taking steps to increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba.  This is fundamentally about freedom and openness, and also expresses my belief in the power of people-to-people engagement.  With the changes I’m announcing today, it will be easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, and Americans will be able to use American credit and debit cards on the island.  Nobody represents America’s values better than the American people, and I believe this contact will ultimately do more to empower the Cuban people.

I also believe that more resources should be able to reach the Cuban people.  So we’re significantly increasing the amount of money that can be sent to Cuba, and removing limits on remittances that support humanitarian projects, the Cuban people, and the emerging Cuban private sector.

I believe that American businesses should not be put at a disadvantage, and that increased commerce is good for Americans and for Cubans.  So we will facilitate authorized transactions between the United States and Cuba.  U.S. financial institutions will be allowed to open accounts at Cuban financial institutions.  And it will be easier for U.S. exporters to sell goods in Cuba.

I believe in the free flow of information.  Unfortunately, our sanctions on Cuba have denied Cubans access to technology that has empowered individuals around the globe.  So I’ve authorized increased telecommunications connections between the United States and Cuba.  Businesses will be able to sell goods that enable Cubans to communicate with the United States and other countries. 

These are the steps that I can take as President to change this policy.  The embargo that’s been imposed for decades is now codified in legislation.  As these changes unfold, I look forward to engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo. 

Yesterday, I spoke with Raul Castro to finalize Alan Gross’s release and the exchange of prisoners, and to describe how we will move forward.  I made clear my strong belief that Cuban society is constrained by restrictions on its citizens.  In addition to the return of Alan Gross and the release of our intelligence agent, we welcome Cuba’s decision to release a substantial number of prisoners whose cases were directly raised with the Cuban government by my team.  We welcome Cuba’s decision to provide more access to the Internet for its citizens, and to continue increasing engagement with international institutions like the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross that promote universal values.

But I’m under no illusion about the continued barriers to freedom that remain for ordinary Cubans.  The United States believes that no Cubans should face harassment or arrest or beatings simply because they’re exercising a universal right to have their voices heard, and we will continue to support civil society there.  While Cuba has made reforms to gradually open up its economy, we continue to believe that Cuban workers should be free to form unions, just as their citizens should be free to participate in the political process.

Moreover, given Cuba’s history, I expect it will continue to pursue foreign policies that will at times be sharply at odds with American interests.  I do not expect the changes I am announcing today to bring about a transformation of Cuban society overnight.  But I am convinced that through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century.

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.  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.  Moreover, it does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse.  Even if that worked -– and it hasn’t for 50 years –- we know from hard-earned experience that countries are more likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to chaos.  We are calling on Cuba to unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans by ending unnecessary restrictions on their political, social, and economic activities.  In that spirit, we should not allow U.S. sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens that we seek to help.

To the Cuban people, America extends a hand of friendship.  Some of you have looked to us as a source of hope, and we will continue to shine a light of freedom.  Others have seen us as a former colonizer intent on controlling your future.  José Martí once said, “Liberty is the right of every man to be honest.”  Today, I am being honest with you.  We can never erase the history between us, but we believe that you should be empowered to live with dignity and self-determination.  Cubans have a saying about daily life:  “No es facil” –- it’s not easy.  Today, the United States wants to be a partner in making the lives of ordinary Cubans a little bit easier, more free, more prosperous.

To those who have supported these measures, I thank you for being partners in our efforts.  In particular, I want to thank His Holiness Pope Francis, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is; the government of Canada, which hosted our discussions with the Cuban government; and a bipartisan group of congressmen who have worked tirelessly for Alan Gross’s release, and for a new approach to advancing our interests and values in Cuba.

Finally, our shift in policy towards Cuba comes at a moment of renewed leadership in the Americas.  This April, we are prepared to have Cuba join the other nations of the hemisphere at the Summit of the Americas.  But we will insist that civil society join us so that citizens, not just leaders, are shaping our future.  And I call on all of my fellow leaders to give meaning to the commitment to democracy and human rights at the heart of the Inter-American Charter.  Let us leave behind the legacy of both colonization and communism, the tyranny of drug cartels, dictators and sham elections.  A future of greater peace, security and democratic development is possible if we work together -- not to maintain power, not to secure vested interest, but instead to advance the dreams of our citizens.

My fellow Americans, the city of Miami is only 200 miles or so from Havana.  Countless thousands of Cubans have come to Miami -- on planes and makeshift rafts; some with little but the shirt on their back and hope in their hearts.  Today, Miami is often referred to as the capital of Latin America.  But it is also a profoundly American city -– a place that reminds us that ideals matter more than the color of our skin, or the circumstances of our birth; a demonstration of what the Cuban people can achieve, and the openness of the United States to our family to the South.  Todos somos Americanos.

Change is hard –- in our own lives, and in the lives of nations.  And change is even harder when we carry the heavy weight of history on our shoulders.  But today we are making these changes because it is the right thing to do.  Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future –- for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere, and for the world.

Thank you.  God bless you and God bless the United States of America.

From the Vatican: Comments From The Pope about US and Cuban agreement

Communiqué of the Secretariat of State
The Holy Father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.
In recent months, Pope Francis wrote letters to the President of the Republic of Cuba, His Excellency Mr Raúl Castro, and the President of the United States, The Honorable Barack H. Obama, and invited them to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations between the two Parties.
The Holy See received Delegations of the two countries in the Vatican last October and provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both Parties.
The Holy See will continue to assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the wellbeing of their respective citizens.
From the Vatican, 17th December 2014
[02096-02.01] [Original text: Italian]
Comunicato della Segreteria di Stato
Il Santo Padre desidera esprimere vivo compiacimento per la storica decisione dei Governi degli Stati Uniti d’America e di Cuba di stabilire relazioni diplomatiche, al fine di superare, nell’interesse dei rispettivi cittadini, le difficoltà che hanno segnato la loro storia recente.
Nel corso degli ultimi mesi, il Santo Padre Francesco ha scritto al Presidente della Repubblica di Cuba, S.E. il Sig. Raúl Castro, ed al Presidente degli Stati Uniti, S.E. il Sig. Barack H. Obama, per invitarli a risolvere questioni umanitarie d’interesse comune, tra le quali la situazione di alcuni detenuti, al fine di avviare una nuova fase nei rapporti tra le due Parti.
La Santa Sede, accogliendo in Vaticano, nello scorso mese di ottobre, le Delegazioni dei due Paesi, ha inteso offrire i suoi buoni offici per favorire un dialogo costruttivo su temi delicati, dal quale sono scaturite soluzioni soddisfacenti per entrambe le Parti.
La Santa Sede continuerà ad assicurare il proprio appoggio alle iniziative che le due Nazioni intraprenderanno per incrementare le relazioni bilaterali e favorire il benessere dei rispettivi cittadini.
Dal Vaticano, 17 dicembre 2014
[02096-01.01] [Testo originale: Italiano]