Following months of secret negotiations with the Cuban government, President Obama on Wednesday announced sweeping changes to normalize relations with Havana, a bold move that ends one of the most misguided chapters in American foreign policy.

The administration’s decision to restore full diplomatic relations, take steps to remove Cuba from the State Department list of countries that sponsor terrorism and roll back restrictions on travel and trade is a change in direction that has been strongly supported by this page. The White House is ushering in a transformational era for millions of Cubans who have suffered as a result of more than 50 years of hostility between the two nations.

Mr. Obama could have taken modest, gradual steps toward a thaw. Instead, he has courageously gone as far as he can, within the constraints of an outmoded 1996 law that imposes stiff sanctions on Cuba in the pursuit of regime change.

“These 50 years have shown isolation does not work,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s time for a new approach.”

Cuba’s President, Raúl Castro, deserves credit for his pragmatism. While Cuba remains a repressive police state with a failed economy, since 2008, under his leadership, the country has begun a process of economic reforms that have empowered ordinary Cubans and lifted travel restrictions the government cruelly imposed on its citizens.

“We must learn the art of coexisting with our differences in a civilized manner,” he said on Wednesday.

The changes the Obama administration announced have the potential to empower Cuban’s growing entrepreneurial class by permitting commercial and financial transactions with the United States. The White House also intends to make it easier for American technology companies to upgrade the island’s primitive Internet systems, a step that could go a long way toward strengthening civil society.

Given Cuba’s complicated history with the United States, it’s all but certain that this new chapter will include suspicion and backsliding. Leaders in both countries must make every effort to deal with those in a rational, constructive way.

The United States has been right to press for greater personal freedoms and democratic change. But its punitive approach has been overwhelmingly counterproductive. Going forward, Washington’s support for Cuba’s civil society and dissidents is likely to become more effective, in good part because other governments in the Western Hemisphere will no longer be able to treat Cuba as a victim of Washington’s pointlessly harsh policy.

As part of the negotiations, the Cuban government released an unnamed American intelligence agent who had been imprisoned for nearly 20 years and Alan Gross, an elderly American subcontractor who had been imprisoned in Havana since 2009. The United States, meanwhile, released three Cuban spies who have served more than 13 years in prison. The prisoner swap paved the way for a policy overhaul that could become Mr. Obama’s top foreign policy legacy.

Administration officials recognize that Congress is unlikely to take complementary steps toward a healthier relationship with Cuba anytime soon. But this move will inevitably inform the debate about the merits of engagement. In all likelihood, history will prove Mr. Obama right.

(From: The New York Times)

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