December 17, 2014 / 5:30 PM / 5 years ago

Cuba's Castro hails prisoner exchange with U.S., praises Obama

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban President Raul Castro hailed a landmark exchange of prisoners with the United States on Wednesday and praised U.S. President Barack Obama as the two countries agreed to normalize relations after more than five decades of hostility. The United States earlier on Wednesday freed three convicted Cuban spies in return for the release of U.S. foreign aid worker Alan Gross, imprisoned in Cuba in 2009, and of an intelligence agent who spied for the United States and had been held for nearly 20 years.

Cuba's President Raul Castro speaks during a television broadcast in Havana December 17, 2014. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa

The release of the three Cuban agents will be seen as a major victory for Castro inside Cuba.

Castro, known for his low-key style, avoided triumphal statements in his televised address but said their release was a cause of “enormous joy for their families and all of our people.”

The three had served 16 years in U.S. jails for spying on Cuban exile groups in Florida. Two others of the so-called Cuban Five had been previously released after serving their terms in U.S. prisons.

In a rare nod to a sitting U.S. president, Castro praised Obama for agreeing to the prisoner exchange and pushing for a new relationship with Cuba.

“This decision by President Obama deserves respect and recognition by our people,” Castro said, speaking at the same time that Obama announced his administration would restore diplomatic relations.

Castro thanked Pope Francis, the Vatican and Canada for helping Havana and Washington reach their historic accord.

Besides Gross, U.S. officials said Cuba also released dozens of political prisoners.

Castro did not give details but separately referred to the intelligence agent, saying he was a man of Cuban origin who had been jailed for spying on Cuba for the Americans.

Castro, 83, became Cuba’s president in 2008, taking over from his older brother Fidel Castro.

Since then, he has moved to encourage more private enterprise with modest economic reforms, although he has insisted the changes are aimed at strengthening communist rule.

Cuba has for decades blamed its economic problems on the U.S. embargo against the island.

Reporting by Daniel Trotta in Havana; Editing by Kieran Murray

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