Obama Realizes What 10 Presidents Didn’t: Isolating Cuba Doesn’t Work

After 18 months of secret talks, the president announces a diplomatic breakthrough that ends the last fight of the Cold War.

12.18.14 10:55 AM ET

President Barack Obama made the dramatic announcement Wednesday that his administration is ending efforts to isolate Cuba that go back more than 50 years. While Congress will have to decide whether to end a formal economic embargo and a ban on casual tourism, senior administration officials said in a White House conference call that they would do everything within their power to end what Obama called a “failed policy.”

“Isolation has not worked,” said Obama from the White House.

Isolation has not helped to promote human rights in Cuba, it has not led to the downfall of the Castro government, and it is a policy carried out by the United States alone in the world. “I do not believe we can continue doing the same thing for five decades and expect a different result,” said Obama in a none-too-subtle allusion to a popular definition of insanity.

The initiative comes after 18 months of secret talks, with a major impetus provided by Pope Francis, who hosted the final discussions between Cuban and U.S. officials at the Vatican in the fall. (We should have known something was up when Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shook hands at Nelson Mandela’s funeral a year ago.)

On Tuesday, Obama and Raul Castro spoke on the telephone for the better part of an hour, going down the checklist of measures that had been agreed upon in the negotiations.

These included a swap of three Cuban spies imprisoned in the United States for the last 15 years in exchange for an unnamed “U.S. intelligence asset” who has spent the last two decades in Cuba’s prisons. The asset was said to have provided the vital information that led to the shutting down of three different Cuban spy operations in the United States, including one in the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The release of American contractor Alan Gross, imprisoned for the last five years, was presented by the administration as a humanitarian decision by Havana since he was not an intelligence agent—despite Cuban claims—and thus the U.S. government would not trade spies to gain his release. Clearly the liberation of Gross took place in the context of what might be called a “grand bargain.”

Other measures include the decision to reopen embassies, closed since 1961, and steps to remove Cuba from the State Department list of countries that support terrorism.

There will be a dramatic expansion of the kinds of licenses that will allow Americans to travel legally to Cuba, covering everything from journalism to humanitarian work and help to the private sector on the island. Even if “tourism” is still barred by law, it is difficult to imagine that anyone wanting to visit the island will not be able to find some category that allows that to happen. And visitors can bring up to $100 worth of Cuban cigars back to the U.S. with them.

To help with those purchases, U.S. financial institutions will be able to operate to some extent in Cuba, and, perhaps most importantly, U.S. credit cards and debit cards will start to function.

Obama is arguing that engagement is more likely to bring about change in Cuba than isolation ever did, and his new policy will try to target areas where change is needed and can be made, particularly with regard to human rights, private enterprise, and access to information. (In what may be a significant gesture, Cuba released 53 prisoners on a list provided by the Obama administration although, of course, this was presented as a sovereign decision by Havana.)

The Treasury and Commerce departments also intend to clear the way for the U.S. export to Cuba of goods that will help small private construction firms, entrepreneurs, and small farmers. Telecommunications workers and investors clearly will find it easy to travel to Cuba, at least from the American side. A major part of the Obama initiative aims to get more and better Internet access for the Cuban people.

Not the least of the Obama administration’s motives is the sense that the American policy of isolating Cuba has, instead, isolated the United States. Not a single country in the world supported it, including and especially the other countries of the Americas, north and south.

Even in the darkest days of right-wing dictatorships in South America in the 1980s, even they thought it wiser to engage the Castro regime than to attack it so relentlessly and gratuitously that it had an excuse for all its own failings. More than 30 years ago, the Argentine ambassador to Havana, who served the generals in Buenos Aires, would tell visiting reporters, “the best way to make war on Castro is with peace.”

Obama couldn’t say that on Wednesday, of course.