THE BLOG
01/15/2015 10:55 am ET Updated Mar 17, 2015

Cuba: Obama Hit the Ball Out of the Park

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In May 2014, I signed an open letter to President Obama urging him to make changes to the regulations governing U.S.-Cuba trade. The letter nibbled around the margins of the embargo, but did not call for comprehensive reforms because they did not seem politically possible.

The 46 letter signatories were playing small ball, but on December 17 President Obama hit the ball out of the park: The release of a U.S. agent imprisoned in Cuba for 20 years. Full diplomatic relations with Cuba. Exchange of ambassadors. A request to Congress to lift the embargo.

Having diplomatic relations doesn't mean we like a country or its system of government. If that were the case, I've got a long list of countries whose ambassadors we should toss. Full diplomatic relations is the norm in international relations. The absence of relations with Cuba is an anachronism from the days when Cuba was exporting revolution and hosting Soviet forces and their missiles.

When relations are difficult is precisely the time when countries ought to have ambassadors in each other's capitals. That's when you want to ensure that you understand each other clearly and that the ambassador speaks for the president of his or her country.

No relations -- think Iran and North Korea -- ought to be the exception.

Just as trade benefits both the seller and the purchaser, the converse is also true. The U.S. embargo hurts U.S. suppliers just as much as it hurts Cuban purchasers.

A little-known hero in all of this is the U.S. intelligence officer who spent 20 years in a Cuban prison. The media identify him as Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, although the U.S. government will not confirm his identity. We moved heaven and earth to obtain Sarraff's release and, as I understand it, this was the very last point the Cubans agreed to. Three Americans are in prison for spying against their own government thanks to information provided by Mr. Sarraff.

And there's a lagniappe: The look on Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro's face when he learned that Raúl Castro had negotiated a deal with the United States. It was a clear signal that Castro had decided to diversify away from Venezuela, a country on the verge of economic collapse.

President Obama rightly said we should have no illusions.

Cuba committed to releasing 53 political prisoners, but it is not clear if they have done so. And the Cuban government continues to harass and arbitrarily detain Cuban citizens as they did on December 31, when they arrested and then released a number of individuals wishing to publicly express their views about Cuba's future.

Nor is Cuba likely to quickly open its economy the way China and Vietnam have done. While Castro has opened the door for a very limited number of entrepreneurs, the reforms are moving too slowly to turn around Cuba's stalled economy.

Trade with Cuba even if the embargo is lifted will be very limited. That sclerotic economy does not have the money to buy the goods it needs.

Finally, many of my fellow Latin America watchers believe that resuming diplomatic relations and removing the embargo will eliminate a perennial stumbling block to U.S. relations with Latin America. While this step avoids a confrontation at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April, don't count on a new era of good feeling with Latin America. Those countries whose national interests dictate close relations with the United States will continue to have close relations. Those countries whose interests are elsewhere will find other pretexts to criticize the U.S.

Here's the most troubling part: Latin American countries, including those with strong democratic traditions and leaders who suffered under dictatorship, will be no more willing to make realistic assessments of human and civil rights in Cuba and even less likely to say anything about it publicly. Despite their lip service to democracy, the unwritten rule in Latin America is you can criticize the United States, but do not criticize a fellow Latin American country.

Go figure.

This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called "90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations." The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.

If you'd like to contribute your own blog on this topic, send a 500-850-word post to impactblogs@huffingtonpost.com (subject line: "90 Miles").