Obama Did the Right Thing on Cuba

President Barack Obama arrives in the White House Cabinet Room, where he announced a shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba in an address to the nation on December 17, 2014.The shift follows Cuba’s release of American aid worker Alan Gross after five years in prison, in a reported prisoner exchange with Havana. Doug Mills/Pool/Reuters

On one level, it's not that huge a deal. Cuba has 11 million people—about the population of Ohio—and a gross domestic product of just $62 billion, around half of Puerto Rico's. But the Cuban normalization moves announced by President Barack Obama are transformative for both the U.S. and Cuba, and for a president who had been bowed by a devastating election. You could also call it the end of the Cold War.

Obama made no secret of his disdain for the U.S. embargo on Cuba, which predated his birth. He hinted at it during his 2008 presidential campaign. And indeed, Washington elites have long thought the embargo was a failed policy that only gave Havana's Communist leaders an excuse to rail against the U.S. I ran into an extremely high official in 2007 who lambasted the embargo privately, although he couldn't publicly. A global embargo might make sense, but a solo embargo has always seemed, to the rest of the world, bizarre—especially when the U.S. has had diplomatic relations with Communist regimes in China and tyrannies like Zimbabwe.

But getting the embargo eased, let alone lifted, has been hard, and the Cubans haven't made it easier. Bill Clinton's overtures toward Cuba were met with the shooting down of a plane piloted by a member of a Cuban-American aid group. Bogged down with two wars, Obama was in no position to push too hard on Cuba—although he did lift the limits on travel and remittances, allowing many more person-to-person ties to grow, which helped accelerate the trend of Florida's Cubans abandoning the old hard line.

Meanwhile, the failures of the embargo were obvious. Communism and the Castros remained in power long after Communism had been jettisoned from Russia and Eastern Europe, where we maintained diplomatic and trade relations during the Cold War. American companies were being denied markets in Cuba. It was hard for America's infectious capitalism to set foot on the island. And we looked like idiots at the U.N. and elsewhere, where we stood with giants like Palau in lopsided votes denouncing the embargo. In recent years, it made it harder to rally the hemisphere in opposition to Venezuelan authoritarianism. Embargo supporters stuck with their belief that the Cuban regime would magically dismantle itself and only then could we sell iPhones on the island.

The Alan Gross imprisonment, ironically, became a springboard for détente—light being wrung out of the dark. It's as if the Cold War had ended on the heels of the Berlin Wall being erected. The American subcontractor was helping to expand Internet access in Cuba when he was arrested and imprisoned as a spy. His senators from Maryland and others pushed for his release. Unlikely buddies, the pope and the Canadians, encouraged all sides. Gross became a cause célèbre in the American-Jewish community. His illegal imprisonment became an opportunity for a larger spy deal and a fundamental shift in relations. Obama can now open diplomatic relations.

Of course, Congress won't allow the trade embargo to fall entirely. It would need to lift those mid-'90s restrictions. There's no Cuban John McCain. The Arizona senator was essential to normalization of relations with Vietnam in 1994. As a former prisoner of war, he had the moral authority to make that happen. There's no equivalent now. Senator Marco Rubio, a likely Republican presidential candidate and a Cuban-American, lashed out at the president, and Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat and Cuban-American, denounced the president's push towards normalization. Jeb Bush has slammed the agreement. But Gross's support for the president's moves at least avoids a PR disaster. If he'd emerged from prison demanding that the embargo stay, well, that could have been a tad difficult for the White House.

What now? The Republican-led Congress isn't going to dismantle the embargo anytime soon. But the opening of relations will make it more likely down the road. Certainly it makes it easier for the U.S. to lead in Latin America. And there will be more travel to Cuba from the U.S.—not regular tourist travel but dramatically expanded travel for journalists, educational groups and others.

What Cuba does matters, too. It wasn't a great sign that when Raul Castro made his announcement he wore revolutionary fatigues—a symbol to the country that the Revolution continues. Will he crack down or loosen up?

For the president and the United States, it's a reminder that the White House can do big things. Obama has the weight of an upcoming Republican Congress that can hinder him, but he still has the capacity to throw long. In the years ahead, a thousand questions lie ahead, from the status of the Guantanamo Bay military facilities to the immigration status of Cubans. But all of that is happening because Obama hasn't laid down yet.