(FILES) This file photo taken on September 29, 2015 shows US President Barack Obama as he shakes hands with Cuba's President Raul Castro during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York. President Barack Obama announced February 18, 2016 he and First Lady Michelle Obama will make a landmark visit to Cuba on March 21-22, pledging to address human rights as America pursues a historic thaw with its former Cold War foe. / AFP / MANDEL NGANMANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: ** OUTS - ELSENT and FPG - OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD **
(FILES) This file photo taken on September 29, 2015 shows US President Barack Obama as he shakes hands with Cuba's President Raul Castro during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York. President Barack Obama announced February 18, 2016 he and First Lady Michelle Obama will make a landmark visit to Cuba on March 21-22, pledging to address human rights as America pursues a historic thaw with its former Cold War foe. / AFP / MANDEL NGANMANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: ** OUTS - ELSENT and FPG - OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD ** (MANDEL NGAN / AFP/Getty Images)

Today's announcement by the White House that President Barack Obama will travel to Cuba next month is a hopeful sign that decades of enmity and mistrust between the former Cold War adversaries may finally be ending. More than a half century of unremitting hostility in American policy toward the island's communist government has failed to either dislodge the Castro brothers' dictatorship or bring greater economic and political freedoms to ordinary Cubans. At the same time, U.S. efforts to isolate Havana economically and diplomatically have proved counterproductive, tarnishing our image in the world nearly as much as Cuba's. A change in U.S. policy toward Havana is clearly overdue.

Mr. Obama's trip will mark the first time a sitting American president has visited the island since Calvin Coolidge traveled there in 1928 — suggesting, perhaps, that our ties to the island nation weren't nearly close enough even before Fidel Castro came to power. The president will be accompanied by a slew of top Commerce, Treasury and State department officials tasked with expanding business ties between the two nations, which are still hobbled by a U.S. economic embargo only Congress can lift. At the very least, officials hope to work out agreements that will allow U.S. airlines to establish regular scheduled flights to Cuba and remove other barriers to American tourists visiting the island.

Advertisement

Not surprisingly, Mr. Obama's Republican critics in Congress are already denouncing the president's trip as misguided because it rewards a despotic regime that tramples human rights and represses democratic discourse. But after decades of trying to strangle Havana into submission without success, Mr. Obama is right to conclude the U.S. should try another approach.

As for the argument that visiting Cuba amounts to a tacit acceptance of its dismal human rights record, the same could be said of China or Vietnam. China is a communist dictatorship just like Cuba that routinely deals harshly with political dissidents. Vietnam is a repressive one-party police state riddled by corruption and nepotism that is equally intolerant of dissent. Yet U.S. presidents are rarely criticized for visiting those two countries, even though, unlike Cuba, we were actually at war with them not too long ago. American presidents have to deal with all sorts of regimes whose policies on some issues we regard as reprehensible, but that doesn't mean we can't talk to them or engage their people in culture or commerce. The long standing mutual hostility between the U.S. and Cuba no longer serves any useful purpose, and it has diminished our standing in Latin America, emboldening other hostile regimes throughout the region. It's past time that an American president finally had the courage to say enough is enough.

Indeed, Mr. Obama has argued that the best way to pressure Cuba's government toward reform is by exposing its citizens to American values and ideals even more widely. The president was fiercely criticized for his diplomatic opening to Iran, but the net result of that initiative, so far at least, has mostly been to strengthen that country's hard-pressed democratic institutions and increase the pressure for change, especially among the nation's young people. Engagement can be as powerful a force as confrontation to nudge rogue regimes toward altering course. Mr. Obama clearly hopes that by ratcheting down tensions between the U.S. and Cuba left over from the Cold War the two countries can begin to normalize relations in ways that produce benefits for both.

The new U.S.-Cuba relationship Mr. Obama hopes to forge is admittedly fragile, and no doubt there will be bumps in the road toward establishing better relations with Havana. It's equally to be expected that the president's critics will exploit those difficulties to howl about Mr. Obama's supposed leadership failings, character flaws, executive overreaching and whatever other mud they can throw at him. But that won't alter the basic fact that Mr. Obama has set the nation on a far better course regarding its Caribbean neighbor than the one that it has pursued for the last six decades, and over the long term that's all that matters.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement