Barack Obama
Barack ObamaReuters

US President Barack Obama formally announced the renewal of diplomatic ties with Cuba on Wednesday, in a special press conference following the announcement of a landmark prisoner swap. 

"Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba, one of the most significant changes in our policy in over fifty years," Obama stated.

"We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries. These 50 years have shown that isolation does not work.”

Obama stated regarding the embargo that "I do not believe we can continue doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result." 

Obama emphasized throughout that the embargo, as instituted at the time, was made "in the best of intentions" and that he does not approve of Fidel Castro's regime. 

However, he said that the lifting of the embargo is intended to help institute change for the Cuban people, and that he hopes other countries will assist him in encouraging the Cuban government to allow the populace to have greater rights and freedoms. 

He added that the US and Cuba would have normalized relations earlier, but that the imprisonment of Jewish-American contractor Alan Gross prevented this. US officials revealed earlier Wednesday that Gross had finally been released since his imprisonment in 2009 via a prisoner swap for three Cuban nationals. 

The United States imposed a trade embargo against Cuba - the Cold War foe closest to its shores - in 1960; the two countries have not had diplomatic relations since 1961.

A US trade embargo hurt the Caribbean island state's economy, but it failed to unseat the Havana governments led first by revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and latterly by his brother Raul.

Meanwhile, both countries have maintained communication despite the end of official relations over fifty years ago, and Obama has eased travel restrictions to Cuba during his presidential term.