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On restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba: why Obama did it — and why now.

The announcement Wednesday came with a statement of the blindingly obvious: Policies established during the depths of the Cold War had failed. 

A woman riding her bicycle on a road in Artemisa province, near Havana on July 25.
REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa

What took so long?

President Obama’s announcement Wednesday that the U.S. would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba came with a statement of the blindingly obvious: Policies established during the depths of the Cold War had failed. They ossified, largely for domestic political reasons, and stayed in place until the right set of circumstances and cast of characters allowed for a dramatic change.

In this case, those characters included a U.S. president who says he wants to avoid doing “stupid stuff,” a Castro whose first name isn’t Fidel, and the first pope from Latin America – who encouraged the two sides. Canada gets an assist for hosting negotiations and keeping it quiet.

Obama has been trying for a similar breakthrough with Iran, but the stakes are higher and the process is vastly more complicated. Iran is a major player in an incredibly volatile region, and it has a nuclear program of debatable purpose.

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And Cuba? Well, the missile crisis was 52 years ago. The world has changed. Cuba has changed, too, but not as much.

This is not to say that the United States and Cuba are going to be buddies. Obama is using executive authority — the best friend of a second-term president facing a hostile Congress — to establish diplomatic relations with Havana for the first time since 1961. But the main irritant, a U.S. embargo, will remain in place. Only Congress can lift that.

Polls indicate the majority of Americans now favor improved relations with Cuba. But the embargo still has a constituency within the anti-Castro Cuban exile community, and in Congress. Senators Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, and Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, were quick to criticize Obama’s move.

The United States, presumably, will use its new diplomats in Havana to press Raul Castro to open up his political system and economy. That’s standard operating procedure in countries (there are many of them) where the United States has issues with human rights abuses, cooked elections, corruption and other ills. The absence of diplomatic representation is very much the exception.

We should watch to see how much things change in Cuba, and how fast. U.S. policies have always provided Cuban authorities with a convenient explanation for the country’s economic backwardness. Change that, and they’ll have to produce.

Some things were bound to change, anyway.

Raul Castro, who took over from his older brother in 2006, is himself an octogenarian. When he was elected to a new five-year term last year, he said it would be his last. So Cuba is on the cusp of a major transition. Cuba’s new president in 2018 will be the first in 59 years who won’t be a Castro.

During his time in office, the younger Castro has taken steps to liberalize the economy. But the moves have been gradual, and a lot of unresolved issues remain. 

And Raul Castro has been clear that the point of economic change is not to lead to political change. But if the system can’t adapt, it will have to change.

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Up to this point, Obama has also been moving cautiously, too, taking smaller steps to ease the impact of U.S. policy. The package of moves announced Wednesday includes reviewing whether Cuba should remain on the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism, a list that — besides Cuba — includes only Iran, Syria and Sudan. The U.S. will loosen some export controls and make it easier to travel to Cuba. And the ban on Cuban cigars will end.

It’s fair to wonder what Fidel thinks of all this. He has largely stayed out of the public eye since handing power to his brother. But he still writes an occasional column, “Reflections of Fidel,” published by Cuban media, including one in which he called Obama stupid.

Fidel usually takes his time. But then, the process that started Wednesday will take some time, too.

Mark Porubcansky has been a foreign correspondent and editor for 30 years, serving until recently as foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Scandia.