A Cuban rides his bicycle by graffiti hailing former Cuban...

A Cuban rides his bicycle by graffiti hailing former Cuban President Fidel Castro, on Aug. 12, 2014, in Havana. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Yamil Lage

The announcement Wednesday that the United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century is a hugely significant move by the U.S. government.

As a precursor, it was announced that U.S. contractor Alan Gross was released after five years in Cuban captivity. In addition, the United States returned three Cuban spies who were in a U.S. prison since 2001 while Cuba released an American intelligence agent who was in a Cuban prison for nearly 20 years.

Yes, it may be seen by some as a spy swap, but more than that it is the extraordinary beginning of a change in policy in place since 1961.

For decades, the United States has used the Swiss embassy to communicate with the Cuban government, and vice versa, but it seems that this time Cuban President Raul Castro spoke directly with White House staff. That is huge in the big scheme of things. Obama and Castro spoke very briefly at Nelson Mandela's funeral in 2013, even exchanging a handshake in view of cameras.

The White House's argument on this seems credible. Raul Castro has implemented some reforms in Cuba and President Barack Obama sees this as a way to encourage even more, including more commerce and further easing of visitation rules (the United States don't really have that many now, to be honest). It's a similar argument used by past U.S. lawmakers when pushing for most-favored-nation status for the Communist Chinese.

Since Fidel Castro’s illness and his retirement in 2008, Raul Castro and his cohorts have been moving to ease some rules on commerce and tourism. That's not to say Cuba is where it needs to be, or that the leaders should be congratulated for the little they’ve done. The government is still deeply corrupt, and the violations of human rights sadly continue. Also factoring in the winds of change in the hemisphere are the death of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 2013 (his successor, Nicolás Maduro, has been a disaster, the country even ran out of bathroom tissue some months ago), and the loss of shine for Evo Morales in Bolivia (the hard-left first native of Indian descent elected to a presidential office in Latin America). The status quo is on life support.

When I visited Cuba almost 25 years ago as a journalist, the island was a very different place from now. The “special period” — during which everyone had to work the fields unpaid for two weeks out of the year for the state — was demoralizing to professionals (doctors, lawyers, economists) and others just trying to make ends meet.

At one countryside farm, folks told me when no one was watching how messed up it all was. They said there were roughly 10,000 phone lines on the entire island.

There are definite signs we should restore relations with Cuba, like these:

-- Today, young people are driving change — aren't they always? — through resistance, ingenuity and social networks (not particularly widespread on the island, but still influential).

-- Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI were openly welcomed in a state that refused — still refuses — to recognize religion as integral part of Cuban society.

-- There’s a not-as-prominent dual economy (one for tourists/visitors, one for Cubans). Although there are still huge food and service shortages and human rights violations, and the country still has the “comite” — neighborhood groups that keep track of visitors and report to the Communist Party apparatus.

Going into this new agreement, we should expect the older Cuban exile communities in the United States to pan this as Communist-loving liberals swapping spies and embracing Communist terrorists, and as giving in to a former Soviet ally — tantamount to the end of the world as we know it.

We can expect some members of Congress to push back forcefully: Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), for now the chairman of the Senate committee on foreign relations, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the incoming chairman of the committee on Western Hemisphere affairs; and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (anti-Castro) and Mario Diaz-Balart, son of past Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, both Florida Republicans. All of these lawmakers represent large swaths of Cuban-American voters. They'll be right to raise objections: The Cuban government is still deeply corrupt.

But, as it has been said for decades, what we've done for more than 50 years has clearly not worked.

The world left two generations of Cubans to know only one form of government, one leader (the longest-serving in the world). Both suppressed not only their dreams but also took away their potential to get this country out of the post-missile crisis mentality. They have been mostly living in a world that doesn't exist for much of the planet, politically, economically and technologically. It's shameful, and America can help change it.

Eli Reyes is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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