WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States will begin talks to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba after decades of nonengagement.
"We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests," Obama said in a December 17 statement from the White House.
The policy shift will include the reestablishment of a U.S. embassy in Havana and moves toward possibly lifting a decades-long U.S. trade embargo, Obama said.
Earlier in the day, Cuba released U.S. aid worker Alan Gross after five years in prison as part of a reported prisoner exchange with Havana.
Cuban President Raul Castro, in an address from Havana timed to coincide with Obama's, said: "We have agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations with the United States."
The two countries have not had diplomatic relations since 1961, two years after Cuba's revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.
Obama and Raul Castro spoke by telephone for more than 45 minutes earlier in the day in the first substantive discussions between the two countries' heads of state since 1961.
"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," Obama said.
The announced detente will include "high-level exchanges and visits" between U.S. and Cuban officials, beginning next month with a U.S. delegation to be sent to Havana for the next round of U.S.-Cuban migration discussions in Havana, the White House said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was looking forward "to being the first secretary of state in 60 years to visit Cuba."
And White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama himself "would not rule out" a visit.
Washington is also easing travel bans to Cuba. This will include family visits as well as official U.S. government business and educational activities. Tourist travel remains banned.
Castro urged Washington to lift a trade and economic embargo imposed on the island.
Obama said he wanted to have an "honest and serious debate" with members of Congress about lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba, adding that "isolation has not worked."
He is likely to meet stiff resistance from Republican lawmakers on the softening of U.S. policy on Havana, however.
Cuban-American U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (Republican-Florida) said in a December 17 statement that he will "make every effort to block this dangerous and desperate attempt" by Obama "to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people's expense."
Obama said a U.S. spy released by Cuba in the reported prisoner exchange was one of the United States' most crucial intelligence agents ever to have operated on the communist island 90 miles off American shores.
The secret operative, who is safely on U.S. soil, obtained information that helped American authorities arrest Cuban agents, including three spies Washington is releasing as part of the exchange, Obama said.
U.S. Representative John Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader in the House, called the relaxing of policy toward Cuba "another in a long line of mindless concessions" to a dictatorship.
The incoming head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker (Republican-Tennessee), was less categorical, saying: "We will be closely examining the implications of these major policy changes in the next Congress."
Obama expressed continuing concerns about the human rights situation in Cuba but said current U.S. policy toward Havana has proven ineffective in pushing the communist government to improve its record on the issue.
"I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result," Obama said.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed the historic move to normalize U.S.-Cuban relations, saying the UN "stands ready to help both countries to cultivate their good neighborly relations."
Pope Francis also congratulated the United States and Cuba on their decision to establish diplomatic ties. In a statement, the Vatican confirmed that its diplomats facilitated talks between the two countries, "resulting in solutions acceptable to both parties."
German Foreign Affairs Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier hailed the restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba as "very good news in these times rich with conflict."
Steinmeier said the European Union resumed dialogue with Cuba in 2013, focusing notably on improved human rights.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also welcomed the news, which he said "France had long hoped for."
Washington broke off diplomatic ties with Havana in 1961.
It has continued its trade embargo against Cuba for more than 50 years and more than two decades after the collapse of the island nation's Cold War guardian, the Soviet Union.
With reporting by AP, Reuters and AFP