12/20/2014 09:43 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2015

A New Normal: US-Cuba Relations and the Path Forward

President Obama's announcement of sweeping changes in US policy toward Cuba hit Washington like an earthquake. But, over time, the greatest impact of the moves will be felt far beyond the capital's caucus rooms and cameras. With a bold stroke, the president has shaken up the political and diplomatic landscape from one end of the Americas to the other, with important potential benefits for the United States.

After half a century, US efforts to isolate Cuba have become universally unpopular across Latin America. Opposition to our policy is rarely an endorsement of the Cuban regime. Instead, even our allies have been frustrated that while we push for open societies and open markets, we have been deaf to criticism of a policy they see as an ideological relic of the Cold War, ineffective, and harmful to the Cuban people.

As a White House official and private businessman with long experience in Latin America, I've heard this criticism from both the left and the right. It has had the unfortunate effect of inflating Cuba's stature as a symbolic underdog and distracting attention from other, more critical issues. And it has helped erode US leadership at a time when we face challenges to our influence in the region from China and elsewhere.

By ending policies started in the Eisenhower administration and beginning a process of normalizing relations, President Obama has changed the game. This historic reset can improve long-term prospects for our interests in at least three important ways.

First, the move helps restore US leadership as the agenda-setter for diplomatic and commercial relations in the Americas. We have a huge stake in the region of more than 600 million people, on issues from drugs and immigration to energy, education and democracy. Latin America and Canada are vital export markets and trading partners. It is notable that leaders from across the political spectrum hailed the news this week as a new beginning for relations across the hemisphere.

Second, it shifts the focal point of discussions of Cuba from US policy to Havana's abysmal record on human rights and gross mismanagement of the economy. The Cuban government has justified repression and blamed nearly every privation on hostility from the United States. This argument, trumpeted by the Castro brothers for decades, has just suffered a drastic devaluation.

Third, these gradual and deliberate measures will give American diplomats and private citizens and, eventually, US businesses a stable platform for operating in Cuba. Deeper engagement by American with Cubans of all walks of life will have a ripple effect, as will more open communications and a flow of information. We will understand Cubans better, and they will see us not as archenemies from the past, but as allies for the future.

No one should have illusions that Cuba will change overnight. But engagement will inevitably open the door to positive change. Emerging Cuban entrepreneurs, for instance, need training and investment. We can play a key role here. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker has already been a champion of "commercial diplomacy." American businesses, which have supported an opening to Cuba, should get behind the president's initiative.

There is passionate disagreement within the United States about the right approach to Cuba. I respect that Sen. Marco Rubio speaks not just for himself when he draws on his personal experience as the son of Cuban exiles to oppose engagement with Havana on the grounds that moving towards normalization is appeasement of a brutal regime.

But I believe that in this case President Obama is on the right side of history. President Nixon's normalization of relations with China set in motion changes that have made the world (and the United States) safer and more prosperous. I was in the White House when President Clinton tried to loosen the Gordian knot of US-Cuba relations (including back-channel secret diplomacy involving the Nobel Prize laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez).

But the time was not right. It is now. The White House and Secretary of State John Kerry deserve credit for skillfully managing the complex and secret negotiations that produced this breakthrough.

By coincidence, President Obama's announcement came almost 20 years to the day after President Clinton convened the first Summit of the Americas in Miami. That meeting, bringing together leaders of every country in the hemisphere except Cuba, reinforced our shared commitment to making the Americas "a community of democratic societies."

When the next Summit of the Americas is held in April in Panama, Cuba will be present for the first time. It will find then just how isolated it is. As long as Cubans are denied basic freedoms, Cuba will be out of step not just with the hemisphere's most powerful country, but with the majority of nations firmly planted in the 21st century.