To say the reset of U.S. policy toward Cuba is long overdue is a vast understatement.
For more than 50 years, economic sanctions and travel restrictions have had little impact on making Cuba's government less repressive or improving the lives of the people.
Cuba is not going to turn into a democracy overnight. Nor will it quickly become a close U.S. ally, if ever.
But President Barack Obama is absolutely correct that the way to help Cuba’s people is through closer economic ties and more human engagement — not less.
“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach,” he said in announcing Wednesday that the United States will move toward restoring full diplomatic relations with the island nation just 90 miles off the Florida coast.
Travel and trade restrictions will be loosened, allowing more Americans to visit and do business in Cuba. The two countries will reopen embassies, exchange high-level delegations and cooperate on drug trafficking, environmental protection and other mutual concerns. Obama will consider taking Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism. He called on Congress to honestly debate lifting the economic embargo — likely to be a big political fight.
The path for Obama’s action was cleared with a surprise prisoner swap. Cuba released U.S. government contractor Alan Gross after five years and a U.S. intelligence agent imprisoned for nearly 20 years, and also promised to release 53 political prisoners. In exchange, the U.S. released three Cuban spies who had been behind bars since 2001.
The U.S. broke off relations in 1961 after the rise of Fidel Castro. Our stand against Cuba is one of the last vestiges of the Cold War. As the president pointed out, we reestablished full relations in 1995 with Vietnam — where 58,000 Americans died to stop communism.
Now, Vietnam is a major tourist destination and trading partner. If we can rebuild that relationship, there’s no world in which our outdated policy toward Cuba makes sense any longer.
There’s a small, but committed group of anti-Castro activists and lawmakers who will never support closer ties with the current regime in Cuba. But they should not have veto power over U.S. foreign policy.
Unfortunately, some Republicans are letting their opposition to Obama blind them to reality. For instance, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield all but accused the president of appeasement. In a statement, he said that Obama’s action signals to “adversaries and allies alike that the United States lacks resolve in standing up for its interests and its principles.”
The reactions of Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco are far more appropriate. Pelosi said Obama’s action renews U.S. leadership in the Western hemisphere. Boxer called it a “breakthrough” that opens enormous economic opportunities for the state. Feinstein called it a “historic day.”
It is that — and we'll eventually look back and wonder why it took so very long.