Obama’s Cuba move really did “tear down this wall”

In a historic shift, President Obama has moved to end 50 years of rigidity in U.S. policy toward Cuba. It’s a change that is long overdue, and it’s a bold move for a supposed lame duck.

Diplomatic ties will be re-established between the two countries in the months to come. Embassies will be reopened. Travel restrictions will be eased, although Congress would need to act to completely lift the travel ban. In a prisoner exchange, American contractor Alan Gross and another unnamed U.S. agent were released from Cuban prisons, and three Cubans were released from American jails. More money can be sent to relatives in Cuba, and people traveling there can take out more goods. People can buy Cuban cigars and rum legally once again.

“Neither the American nor the Cuban people are well-served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born,” Obama said in announcing the changes. “It’s time for a new approach.” Indeed, the ill-fated Bay of Pigs fiasco was in 1961, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was in 1962. If you don’t mind listening to Kevin Costner’s bad attempt at a Boston accent, watch Thirteen Days to get a better sense of that period in time.

Over 18 months of secret talks, with the cooperation and intervention of Canada and Pope Francis, U.S. officials have been meeting with representatives of Raul Castro’s government. Obama’s announcement is the capstone of those talks, even though it’s really only a beginning.

The reaction of Cuban Americans is split mostly along age lines. Members of the older generation, who will hate Fidel Castro until their dying breath, predictably condemned Obama’s new position. Younger Cuban Americans welcomed the news and look forward to reuniting with relatives.

It didn’t take long for Republican outrage to surface. Sen. Marco Rubio (R, Fla.), who used to claim that his parents and grandparents escaped Castro’s Cuba until that was found to be a lie — they arrived in the U.S. before Castro took power — was first out of the gate with indignation.

Calling Obama the “worst negotiator since Jimmy Carter,” Rubio whined that Cuba got “everything” and the U.S. got “very little.” Rubio, whose 15 minutes of fame were basically up ever since his thirst overcame his poise during his GOP rebuttal to the State of the Union address, was joined by other Republicans expressing the usual anger at any Obama accomplishment. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R, S.C.) says he will fight so that not one penny goes toward opening a new embassy. Hey, how about Rubio or Sen. Ted Cruz (R, Texas) for Cuban ambassador? After all, Cruz’s father, Rafael, came to the U.S. from Cuba illegally, so Cruz would feel right at home.

Keep in mind that this is only the first step in what is bound to be a long process of normalizing relations between the two countries. Neither side got “everything.” As many pundits have correctly pointed out, the U.S. is the only country with the policy of isolating Cuba, and it hasn’t done much good. It has kept the people of Cuba poorer and hasn’t helped the U.S., while other countries have open travel and trade policies.

Conventional wisdom has always been that “Only Nixon could go to China.” It was a visit from Republican President Richard Nixon in 1972 that was the beginning of the normalization of relations between the U.S. and China. China became an ally of the U.S. in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Many issues about Taiwan were resolved peacefully, although some problems remain thorny to this day. Trade was established between the two countries, giving many U.S. businesses new opportunities for cheap labor and new markets.

No, Obama’s announcement about Cuba does not mean the restoration of democracy in the island nation only 90 miles away. But did the non-restoration of democracy keep U.S. companies from investing in China, Vietnam, or other Communist countries? According to some business commentators, this new chapter of U.S.-Cuban relations could be a win-win for both U.S. and Cuban enterprises.

Usually, at this point in a two-term presidency, other politicians and pundits have written off the incumbent as having no more influence. The opposition party holds both houses of Congress. Obama has become a lame duck, so why should anyone pay attention to him?

If this is what we can look forward to for the next two years, Mr. President, by all means, keep quacking.

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