Obama on Cuba: Isolation failed

Arguing that “50 years have shown that isolation hasn’t worked,” President Obama announced sweeping new steps toward normalizing relations with Cuba on Wednesday.

In comments from the White House, the president asserted that “neither the American nor Cuban people” were well served by existing restrictions on travel and trade. Obama said he was ending “an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests.”

“It’s time for a new approach," he declared.

Obama said the U.S. will ease travel restrictions to the country, and authorize new exports of construction, agricultural and telecommunications equipment. The U.S. will also establish an embassy in Havana, and ease restrictions on financial institutions and trade.

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The changes were preceded by more than a year of secret high-level talks between the U.S. and Cuban governments. They also went hand-in-hand with the release of both Alan Gross, a U.S. aid worker who had been imprisoned in Cuba for more than five years, and another man who was jailed for nearly two decades after being exposed as a U.S. intelligence asset during the Cold War.

The U.S. agreed that it would release three Cuban prisoners who had been convicted of spying against anti-Castro groups in Florida.

Pope Francis personally appealed to both Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro to do the deal, and Obama thanked him for his efforts.

Obama said the U.S. and Cubans could now work together to “advance shared interests” on issues like healthcare and counterterrorism. He said the countries could “work side by side” on efforts like the fight against Ebola.

The president also argued the restored diplomatic dies would enable the U.S. to raise concerns about the Castro regime’s brutal civil rights violations more directly.

“We can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement,” Obama said.

The president also argued that isolation had not worked in toppling the regime, and that the moves were consistent with his commitment to “freedom and openness” as a diplomatic tool.

He said that Americans traveling to Cuba would serve as ambassadors for democratic values, and that new access to telecommunications equipment and the Internet would “do more to empower the Cuban people.”

Obama acknowledged the moves were certain to draw controversy. He has already been proven correct in that regard: Cuban-American lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have slammed the president’s decision as wrong-minded.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) in a statement said the president’s actions had “vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government.”

The president said he respected the passion and “commitment to liberty and democracy” of his opponents, but said ultimately, he did not think the current policy was working.

“I do not think we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect different results,” he said.

Obama described the trade embargoes as an outdated relic, saying it was important to “cut loose the shackles of the past.”

"We should not allow U.S. sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens we seek to help,” he added.

He also said he would ask members of Congress to do more, including removing remaining hurdles to normalized relations codified by law.

“I look forward to engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo,” he said.

At the same time, the president said he stressed he remained committed to promoting democratic values on the island and had stressed that point in a historic phone call Tuesday to Castro.

"I made clear my strong belief that Cuban society has been strained by restrictions on its citizens,” Obama said.