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Secretary Clinton's Bold Stroke

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Diana Nyad, America's most celebrated long-distance swimmer, tried and tried to cross the Florida Straits. No one had successfully completed the dangerous, marathon swim before. She set out four times, trained hard before setting off, and failed on each occasion. On her fifth attempt, at age 64, she made it. She proved it could it be done. Her success was not only a stunning athletic achievement. Through her exertions she made the distance between Havana and Miami seem smaller, no longer impossible.

If she runs for the presidency in 2016, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could echo if not exceed the scope of Ms. Nyad's achievement. She would start her campaign after having violated the received wisdom that a candidate cannot win the White House without supporting the embargo against Cuba. In the 15 presidential elections that have taken place since the Castro Revolution, no major candidate with a chance to win the White House has ever tried to do this.

Once a resolute supporter of sanctions, Secretary Clinton has broken with political history. Her new memoir, Hard Choices, makes public for the first time her private appeal to President Obama to lift the U.S. embargo. She elaborated on her position in an interview with NPR, saying "I would support normalizing relations which could very well lead to lifting the embargo."

What explains this sea-change? While Frank James, a reporter for NPR, cites a series of data points from public opinion surveys in Florida and nationally, to support his argument that Secretary Clinton is seizing a political opening, there may be a more prosaic explanation; after a decade of service in the Senate and President Obama's cabinet, she may have concluded the obvious: Sanctions against Cuba do not work.

"Sanctions," as Reuters wrote recently, "don't always succeed -- especially unilateral ones. A 54-year U.S. trade embargo has done little to change Cuba's socialist system or anti-U.S. outlook."

In its story, "Aiming Financial Weapons from Treasury War Room," the New York Times, which said of economic sanctions, "this is how the Obama administration goes to war," listed "the steadily increasing number of financial sanctions" and never mentioned Cuba. Not once.

The Treasury Department, in the documents it submitted to Congress to justify its 2015 budget, cited over 500 actions under its authorities and the powerful role that sanctions played in bringing Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear program, but Cuba never comes up.

President Obama, as a Senator, was against the embargo, before he was for it. Although he has made incremental but important tweaks to the policy, especially on travel, his administration continues to enforce the embargo with abandon, collecting record fines against global financial institutions to cripple Cuba's ability to conduct global commerce.

Secretary Clinton, apparently, saw things differently and, according to her account in Hard Choices, took the opportunity to say so.

Like most of the rest of us, Secretary Clinton never saw results from the embargo; but, unlike the rest of us, she had to deal with its consequences: a policy that alienated the U.S. from Latin America, that subjected the U.S. to ridicule in the U.N., that left us unprotected against cross-border problems - such as threats from oil spills -- the U.S. and Cuba could have solved together, that left Alan Gross in prison, that locked U.S. companies out of the Cuban market, that opened the door for Russia, China, and others to invest and engage, and so forth.

She could have chosen to swim with the current when she had the chance, but has now taken a different course. Even as a potential candidate, bigger obstacles than Cuba stand in her way. But, if she makes it all the way to the White House, Mrs. Clinton can make the distance between Washington and Havana vanish with a bold stroke.