"Change is hard, but today America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past," said President Obama on Wednesday, announcing his administration's historic effort to normalize ties with Cuba. Relations were severed in 1961, following the ascension of the Communist regime of Fidel Castro and its confiscation of American property on the island.
But the world is a very different place more than a half century later. Here's why it's high time this thaw took place.
Long gone are the fears of Soviet missile silos and further Marxist-Leninist infiltration into the Americas. The seeds of capitalism are waiting to sprout: nowadays, the youngest son of revolutionary Che Guevara charges tourists thousands of dollars to reenact his late father's motorcycle travels. Meanwhile, a host of new threats and concerns have animated American foreign policy since the fall of the U.S.S.R. Chief among them is the rise and influence of Islamic extremist militancy in various parts of the Middle East and South Asia.
The popular American view of Cuba -- of a society puttering along on 1950s technology and revolutionary fumes -- is the hidebound product of the decades-long freeze. Cuba has moved on, albeit fitfully. Its economy has grown, and average life expectancy on the island is higher than that in the United States, a product of Cuba's much-lauded universal health-care system. The impressive Cuban response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa was a sign of Havana's capacity to do good on the world stage. Cuba's government may be anti-democratic and repressive, but so, too, are that of a host of other nations, with whom the United States has far fewer qualms engaging.
Unlike the U.N.-authorized regime of sanctions placed on countries like Iran and North Korea, the continued American embargo of Cuba is unilateral and untargeted. It has persisted not as a punishment for specific Cuban policies, but as a club with which to drive the regime in Havana out. And it hasn't worked. The European Union now accounts for 20 percent of Cuba's total trade. Foreign tourists abound in the country's resorts, as do foreign missions in its capital. Cuba is hardly an international pariah.
Yet, as a post on Monkey Cage observes, it's the United States that is very much alone in its stance. Since 1992, the U.N. General Assembly has voted every year on the "necessity of ending" the American embargo imposed on Cuba. In the last vote, as the blog notes, only Israel sided with the United States; the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau chose to abstain. Such measures may be purely symbolic, but hindsight may judge this to be a rather embarrassing blemish on U.S. foreign policy.
It's a strange irony that some of Washington's biggest proponents of free trade don't want to see the United States enable such liberalizing changes in Cuba. Closer ties to Cuba, including trade links, will ideally lead to a deepening of Cuba's own curtailed civil society. That, at least, is the current message of the Obama administration. The more open Cuba gets, the more access its people may have to the Internet and to outside channels of information. That, the hope goes, may speed political reform in Havana.
Critics may point to countries like China and Vietnam, where decades of economic development and free enterprise have yet to yield any real liberal, democratic dividend. But Cuba is fundamentally different; it exists in the U.S.'s shadow and its links to the American mainland, including some 1.5 million Cuban Americans, mean that even the most dogged authoritarian leader will struggle to inoculate the regime from American influence -- that is, once Washington finally chooses to engage with Cuba.
Despite what some politicians may say, a majority of Americans are ready for this sort of rapprochement. A poll conducted by the Atlantic Council earlier this year found that, while Washington's rhetoric around Cuba may stem from an earlier era, the attitudes of Americans have shifted to the present. That includes many once hard-line Cuban Americans. In Miami on Wednesday, some Cuban Americans greeted the opening with jubilation. "If things like this cafe can start happening there," one Cuban-American restaurant owner told Reuters, "if people can have a better life, I'm all for change."