(L-R) U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, speaks with U.S. Senator Richard...

(L-R) U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, speaks with U.S. Senator Richard Shelby and Cuba's President Raul Castro in Havana, Cuba. (Feb. 23, 2012) Credit: AP

President Obama this week announced that the United States and Cuba have agreed to establish diplomatic relations and ease economic and travel restrictions to the communist island nation.

"Isolation has not worked," Obama said Wednesday. "It's time for a new approach." The move means the United States will reopen an embassy in Cuba. It also suggests that the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, established in 1960 after the Castros deposed the pro-America Batista government, may soon come to an end.

Is it past time the United States re-established ties with Havana? Or would U.S. diplomatic ties with Cuba only strengthen a wobbly anti-American regime? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.

BEN BOYCHUK: Re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba is a great win for President Obama. He'll go down in history as the man who thawed relations with Raul and Fidel Castro after a half-century standoff.

That's one way of looking at it anyway. In reality, Obama just abandoned Cuba's struggling pro-democracy movement to burnish his legacy. For captive people across the globe, this move is a decisive setback.

Obviously, diplomatic relations represent a huge win for the Cuban socialist regime. At long last, the Brothers Castro have the two prizes they long desired but could never obtain from the United States: recognition and legitimacy. Now they can tell their dissident population, "See, even the Americans stand with us now." Don't expect closer U.S.-Cuba economic ties to lead to greater political freedom - any more than economic liberalization has freed any except a small, politically connected class in China. About 1.3 billion Chinese remain under the boot heel of political and economic repression, despite their country's emergence as the second largest economy on earth.

If anything, expect the Castros to take a page from Beijing's playbook and use expanded trade to shore up their authoritarian regime. Under Cuba's 1976 constitution, all trade must be conducted through government-owned monopolies. That's not going to change.

Yet for nearly 25 years, American business groups with Cuban ties have made the case for lifting the U.S. trade embargo. Isolating Cuba will only lead to more boat people and maybe even war, they said. Think of the business opportunities were missing, they said. We're losing out to the Germans! The Mexicans! The Spanish! Even the Canadians, for heaven's sake! And the truth is that for nearly 25 years, all of that German, Mexican, Spanish and Canadian investment has done precious little to improve the lives of Cubans. Neither has the increased flow of U.S. dollars into the island nation.

Despite it all, Cuba continues to persecute its dissidents, sponsor terrorism and foment anti-American sentiment across Latin America. To expect new relations to change that is the height of folly.

JOEL MATHIS: It's about time.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results, the United States drifted far from its senses decades ago in Cuba. We broke off relations and imposed an embargo after Fidel Castro took over and imposed communism on the island nation. We thought we'd wait him out.

Folks, Fidel Castro is still alive. His brother runs the country. President Obama wasn't even alive when the embargo was imposed. More than half the presidents who oversaw the U.S. attempts to freeze out Fidel are now dead themselves: Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Reagan have all passed on. U.S. stubbornness outlived them all.

Put it this way: When Castro took over, the news was delivered on black-and-white televisions.

Now: The decision to start to normalize relationships with Cuba doesn't mean the Castros are suddenly good guys, nor does it mean that Cuba will suddenly become a capitalist paradise. But it probably does mean that the U.S. will have more, not less, influence over the nation and its future than it did before. Engagement is often better than non-engagement.

"Today, the United States is taking historic steps to chart a new course in our relations with Cuba and to further engage and empower the Cuban people," the White House said in a written statement.

That's mostly likely correct. How do we know? Because more than five decades of silence and international cold-shoulderdom never did work, never did produce any kind of reforms or counterrevolution. It seems almost certain at this point that any other approach will work better.

There will be, of course, unreconstructed Cold Warriors who will complain bitterly about President Obama's decision. Do not listen to them. They've had several generations to be right - and failed utterly.

A change is coming to U.S.-Cuba relations? Great. It's about time. It's been about time for a long, long time.

Ben Boychuk (bboychuk@city-journal.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis (joelmmathis@gmail.com) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine.

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