A political standoff that spanned five decades and 10 presidents began to crumble Wednesday with President Barack Obama's move to normalize relations with Cuba.
The announcement was the product of a year of clandestine back-channelling between the U.S. and Cuba, facilitated by the Canadians and the Vatican and with personal involvement from the Pope.
"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," Obama said in a statement announcing his decision.
He added: "It's time for a new approach."
Obama said he's instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to immediately begin discussions with Cuba to re-establish diplomatic relations, and that the U.S. will re-open an embassy in Havana. The administration will also allow some travel and trade that had been banned under a decades-long embargo instated during the Kennedy administration.
"Neither the American nor Cuban people are well-served by a rigid policy that's rooted in events that took place before most of us were born," Obama said.
Obama's move risks triggering another fight with Congress, which will come under the full control of Republicans in January.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer he would do everything in his power to block any potential U.S. ambassador to Cuba even receive a vote.
He also called the easing of economic restrictions "inexplicable" in a statement.
"Appeasing the Castro brothers will only cause other tyrants from Caracas to Tehran to Pyongyang to see that they can take advantage of President Obama's naiveté during his final two years in office. As a result, America will be less safe as a result of the President's change in policy," he said.
Rubio promised that as the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Western Hemisphere subcommittee, he'll "make every effort to block this dangerous and desperate attempt by the President to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people's [sic] expense."
Speaking at the same time as Obama from his own country, Cuban President Raul Castro lauded the move.
"This expression by President Barack Obama deserves the respect and recognition by all the people and I want to thank and recognize support from the Vatican and especially from Pope Francis for the improvement of relations between Cuba and the United States," he said.
Obama's announcement comes as both nations have released political prisoners in a show of goodwill, with American Alan Gross headed home on "humanitarian" grounds from Cuba early Wednesday morning. In a separate swap, a U.S. intelligence source held for 20 years was released in exchange for three jailed Cuban spies.
Obama said he and Castro spoke Tuesday in a phone call that lasted about an hour and reflected the first communication at the presidential level with Cuba since the Cuban revolution.
But some Republicans are warning the move will only strengthen the Castro regime in Cuba, which has long been accused of human rights abuses and is listed by the State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Obama said Wednesday he has instructed Kerry, however, to review Cuba's place on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.
Wednesday's announcement that the U.S. will move toward restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba will also make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba and do business with the Cuban people by extending general licenses, officials said. While the more liberal travel restrictions won't allow for tourism, they will permit greater American travel to the island.