It takes a lot to shake the jaded White House press corps. So when I walked into the briefing room Thursday and a reporter friend greeted me with "Wow, this is a legacy day," when another reporter observed that Obama was ending his sixth year with a "thunderclap," and when Press Secretary Josh Earnest began his briefing by noting what a "historic day" it was at the White House, you knew something really big was up.
Which was true. In a dramatic appearance in the Cabinet Room, President Obama announced the release of American citizen Alan Gross from a Cuban prison and the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba – a deal that had been over a year in the making and which caught everyone by surprise.
It's about time. The long, meaningless U.S. embargo against Cuba is one of the biggest foreign policy fiascoes of all time. Though continued by every president from Eisenhower to Obama, it never worked. It never did anything except deprive the Cuban people of access to American goods and deprive American businesses and farmers of access to one of the most promising markets in the hemisphere, just 90 miles off our shore.
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The fact that not one other nation supported America's blockade against Cuba speaks to its ineffectiveness. It was meant to bring the Cuban economy to its knees and thus spark the overthrow of its communist government. Yet when it was put in place, the Castro regime was in charge. Today, almost 53 years later, they're still in charge and still denying basic rights to the Cuban people. Conservative or liberal, any reasonable person would have to conclude: This strategy obviously isn't working. Maybe it's time to try another one.
There are immediate, tangible and positive effects of the new rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, which was prompted by phone calls to President Obama and President Raul Castro by none other than Pope Francis himself. Aid worker Alan Gross is back in the states after spending five years in a Cuban jail. In a scene right out of John le Carre, an unidentified American spy's also back home, freed after 20 years in prison in a swap for our release of three Cuban spies. And 50 Cuban prisoners whom we identified as arrested and detained for political reasons only were freed by the Cuban government.
But, pending congressional approval, the benefits will soon go far beyond the swap of prisoners. For the first time in over 50 years, American farmers will be able to sell their crops in Cuba. American developers will be able to build hotels and office buildings. American banks will be able to make loans. American Internet firms will be able to link Cubans to news sources outside the government-controlled press. American baseball teams will be able to hire Cuban all-stars. And more and more people will be able to travel between the two countries, although you can't just call your airline and book a flight for mere tourism. Soon maybe, but not yet.
Obama's new strategy toward Cuba is one long embraced by both peace activists and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: Stop fighting the Cold War. Instead, just open up the doors to Cuba, as we earlier did in Vietnam, and let capitalism work. The more they buy our products, the more business deals we make, and the more interaction between Cubans and Americans at every level, the greater the pressure on the Castro regime to follow economic reforms with democratic reforms.
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Maybe you noticed. This deal makes so much sense that the only ones to oppose it were one-issue politicians like Florida's Marco Rubio, who are locked into politics of the past, when Miami's anti-Castro Cuban community could dictate American foreign policy toward Cuba. But those days are long gone. In 2012, Barack Obama, who campaigned on a promise to revisit America's tired, old policy toward Cuba, actually won a majority of the Cuban-American vote in Miami. Even most Cuban-Americans were ready for change.
At a time when every day seems to bring so much tragic news on the world front, it's good to end the year with a foreign policy success story. And it's good to see a re-energized President Obama. Since the Democrats' big loss in November, he's signed a major climate deal with China, announced new immigration reforms and totally reversed our policy toward Cuba. No wonder some are starting to call him "Obama Libre."