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After decades of diplomatic tension, relations between the U.S. and Cuba are about to take a major step toward normalcy.

Reuters reports that "the United States and Cuba are moving to normalize diplomatic relations more than 50 years after they were severed in a historic shift in policy ... [President Barack] Obama spoke on Tuesday to Cuban President Raul Castro to discuss the changes in a call that lasted nearly an hour."

What's changing: Obama has instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to initiate discussions with Cuba and will reestablish an embassy in Havana in the coming months, a major change since President Eisenhower broke off ties in the island nation in January 1961.

The shift in approach 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. Cuba has been on the State Department's list of terror sponsor since 1982.

While travel to Cuba for tourist purposes will remain prohibited, senior administration officials said that family members, U.S. officials, businesses, journalists and private foundations will start to enjoy relaxed travel restrictions in the coming week. This news will likely be happily received by families who fled Castro's rule since the revolution more than 50 years ago.

There's a big consumer perk hidden in the details of the U.S.-Cuba shift: Americans who visit the country will now be able to bring back those legendary Cuban cigars. Senior administration officials said Wednesday that licensed U.S. travelers to Cuba will be able to bring back $400 worth of goods and merchandise, of which no more than $100 can consist of both alcohol and tobacco products.

Fidel and Raul Castro in Cuba shortly after the country's revolutionSource: AP
Fidel and Raul Castro in Cuba shortly after the country's revolution  AP

How did this happen? The news comes after U.S. contractor Alan Gross, who has been held by the Cuban government since 2009, was freed Wednesday. Senior administration officials told CNN that Gross' release was "part of a landmark deal with Cuba that paves the way for a major overhaul in U.S. policy toward the island."

Along with Gross' safe return, the U.S. released three Cubans jailed in Florida for spying. Senior administrations officials say the three Cubans were released in exchange for a "U.S. intelligence asset" who has been jailed in Cuba for more than 20 years. Gross' release, they say, was a humanitarian gesture concurrent to that swap but not a part of it. 

Pope Francis and the Vatican also played a significant role in reopening diplomatic relations. According to senior Obama administration official, the Vatican not only hosted in-person meetings between Cuban and U.S. officials, but actively played a role in the discussions. The meeting to finalize the reopening of relations was also held at the Vatican this past fall, and the Vatican sent a personal letter to Obama regarding Cuban relations.

"We haven't received communications from the pope of this nature," said a senior administration official. "That gave us greater impetus and momentum."

Source: AP
Source: AP

This is big. "We are charting a new course toward Cuba," a senior administration official told CNN. "The president understood the time was right to attempt a new approach, both because of the beginnings of changes in Cuba and because of the impediment this was causing for our regional policy."

Editors Note: Mar. 2, 2015 

An earlier version of this article cited Reuters reporting, but did not include quotations around the cited passage. The story has been updated to fully attribute Reuters' language.