Puerto Rico's secretary of state said Wednesday that the United States' plans to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba - and potentially lift its longstanding economic embargo on the Communist-ruled island - will have a major impact on the Caribbean trade and tourism sectors.

"This decision is not only important for Cuba and the U.S., but also for the Caribbean region, because there is now a major player that, once fully open to the U.S., will have a significant impact on all trade and tourism," David Bernier told Efe.

This move by the U.S. and Cuban governments will present the Caribbean countries with a "slew of opportunities and challenges," he said, adding that they "need to be prepared to respond appropriately."

"It will create many opportunities for Puerto Rican entrepreneurs. Puerto Rico has carved out a unique role in tourism, and once Cuba begins the process of opening to the U.S. a search for growth opportunities must begin," Bernier said.

He made those remarks after U.S. President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, announced they will start the process of restoring full bilateral relations, which were severed in January 1961.

As part of the process of rapprochement, Havana released American contractor Alan Gross, who had been imprisoned on the island for five years after being convicted of subversion.

The United States also freed three Cuban spies from the so-called "Group of Five" in exchange for a U.S. intelligence agent imprisoned in Cuba for nearly 20 years.

Obama acknowledged in his address on Wednesday that Gross' imprisonment was a major obstacle in the way of his plans to restore relations with Cuba.

"I completely agree with Obama's decision," Bernier said, adding that it will "ultimately benefit both countries."

The decision to free the Cuban spies also has raised hopes in the U.S. commonwealth that Obama will heed local calls for the release of Puerto Rican pro-independence activist Oscar Lopez Rivera, who was convicted in 1981 of seditious conspiracy and has been imprisoned for 33 years.

"Obama is starting to take, at this stage of his presidency, a more sensible approach in his decisions and that's why we all demand the freedom of Oscar as we are convinced that this is a fair and righteous demand," Bernier said.

Lopez Rivera, 71, was sentenced to 55 years in prison and in 1987 an additional 15 years were added to his sentence for conspiracy to escape from prison. EFE