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U.S. re-engagement is best way to change Cuba

A Ford Fairline 57 vintage car passes near

A Ford Fairline 57 vintage car passes near the Capitol in Havana on February 23, 2008. Credit: AFP-Getty Images / Luis Acosta

The icy relationship between the United States and Cuba, a staple of our politics and popular culture for decades, melted Wednesday when President Barack Obama re-established diplomatic relations with that Communist enclave just off our shore.

The historic change -- worked out over 18 months with a little help from Obama's friend in the Vatican -- is long overdue.

The attempt to isolate Cuba economically and politically began with good intentions in 1961, a simpler time when it seemed that was the way to drive Fidel Castro's Communist regime from power. Five and a half decades later, it's clear the strategy didn't work.

For decades, the United States has had diplomatic and trade relations with Communist China and even Vietnam, where so many American lives were lost. The drama and romance of the struggle against communism in Cuba, and the political influence of anti-Castro expatriates in Miami, cast the attempt to isolate that island in a singular light. But it's better to encourage orderly change through engagement than to risk Cuba one day becoming a lawless, failed state that would provide a close haven for terrorists.

So the time is right for a different approach to the tiny nation that has loomed so large in the American psyche -- from the Bay of Pigs invasion to the missile crisis, through pop culture in movies such as "Scarface" and "The Godfather Part II," to the harrowing dramas of desperate Cubans fleeing in leaky boats and skilled athletes such as former Yankee and Met Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez risking it all for a shot at Major League Baseball.

The initial, almost hysterical, political response in some quarters to Obama's decision to end the Cold War is incomprehensible.

Re-establishing a U.S. embassy in Havana, relaxing rules for sending money to Cuba, expanding U.S.-Cuban trade, reviewing Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, allowing business deals between banks and communication companies, and easing travel restrictions -- including allowing visitors to return with a few Cuban cigars -- will improve the lives of the Cuban people and advance U.S. interests. Now Congress should repeal the trade embargo, the last legal obstacle to normal relations.

It's fitting that such a dramatic era ended with a prisoner swap reminiscent of the Cold War. Obama traded three Cuban spies imprisoned since 2001 for a U.S. intelligence agent imprisoned for 20 years and American Alan Gross, a former government contractor who spent five years behind bars for bringing satellite communication devices into Cuba. The regime arrested him out of fear that communication with the outside world would loosen its grip on the populace.

Right now only 1 in 20 people in Cuba has access to the Internet, among the lowest rates in the world. Increasing that number is one of the best ways to promote the kind of change we've sought for so long in one of the world's last bastions of communism.

It's time to see whether openness and capitalism can accomplish what isolation did not.