The release today of Alan Gross, the American contractor from Maryland held captive for five years in a Cuban prison on trumped up espionage charges, signals not only the long-awaited return of an unjustly accused man to his family and friends but also a historic shift in U.S. policy toward the island nation. The U.S. effort to force the Cuba's communist government from power through economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation never achieved its intended purpose, but it did succeed in creating a 50-year rift between the two countries that benefited neither. This change in direction was long overdue.

Mr. Gross, who worked for a nonprofit group under contract to the U.S. Agency for International Development, was arrested in 2009 for trying to bring Internet services to Cuba's small Jewish community. Cuba tightly controls access to the Internet, and it accused Mr. Gross of bringing equipment into the country that potentially could enable users to get around those restrictions. After a brief trial he was sentenced to 15 years in prison under the country's espionage laws.

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Mr. Gross' family implored Cuban officials to release him on humanitarian grounds after his health began to decline in prison. They were joined by several members of Congress, along with former New Mexico governor and cabinet secretary Bill Richardson, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Jewish advocacy groups. Although supporters initially hoped Mr. Gross would be freed relatively quickly after his conviction, as other Americans accused of spying had been, his case dragged on for months that turned into years.

It's unclear exactly when the breakthrough that produced Mr. Gross' release occurred; a deal reportedly was reached in secret meetings between U.S. and Cuban envoys in Canada and at the Vatican over the last year and a half.

But the announcement that he was finally on his way home today was accompanied by the stunning news that the U.S. and Cuba had also agreed to open embassies in each other's capitals and normalize diplomatic relations more than 50 years after they were severed.

The agreement opens a new chapter in U.S.-Cuban relations that could help shape President Barack Obama's foreign policy legacy as he enters his final two years in office. The president has long argued that the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba was counterproductive and inimical to American interests in the region. Today he expressed his satisfaction over finally being able to move beyond the limitations of that policy.

"We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries," he told a national audience in a televised address from the White House. He pledged to "begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas" that would relegate to the past a "rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born."

In that the president is surely right. The long standoff began after the 1959 Cuban revolution and the subsequent nationalization of American property on the island; it was intensified by the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev attempted to station nuclear missiles on the island capable of hitting the U.S. It survived both the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall that ended communist domination of Eastern Europe. The U.S. policy toward Cuba was the last vestige of those Cold War rivalries, and it had clearly outlived its usefulness.

Meanwhile, the people of Cuba and the United States have drawn ever closer despite the best efforts of their governments to maintain the old battle lines. Cuban artists, musicians and writers have profoundly influenced American popular culture, and a new generation of Cuban young people has come of age admiring America's political freedoms and economic opportunities. Allowing the free exchange of people and ideas between the two nations will spur more change on the island in a few years than has occurred there over the last half century of mutually imposed isolation.

This is truly a watershed moment in America's relationship with its Latin American partners and with the world. By extending a hand of friendship to our former foe, the U.S. has demonstrated that it can move beyond the bitter ideological conflicts of the 20th-century and work with all its neighbors to address the challenges and opportunities of the 21.st.

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