Story highlights

Jennifer McCoy is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University, Americas Program director at The Carter Center, and coauthor of International Mediation in Venezuela. 

President Obama's surprise announcement of a prisoner exchange and moves towards normalisation of US-Cuban relations today has unleashed some withering criticism. But a little history shows that there are at least four key reasons why today's announcement marks a good start.

Prisoner releases give both sides something

In 2009, US contractor Alan Gross was arrested by the Cubans for bringing in satellite communication equipment in violation of Cuban law. Regardless of the merits of his case, the larger context is important to understand.

The Cubans had been tracking the Bush administration's "democracy promotion" programmes that funnelled up to $40m in US aid each year to dissidents on the island. Under the Helms-Burton Act those funds have a clear intent: regime change. When Barack Obama became president, the Cubans expected a change and were distressed to see contractors like Gross continue to make non-transparent trips to Cuba.

US and Cuba to restore ties after 50 years

The three Cubans imprisoned in the US who were sent home were part of a group of five who were spying on Cuban-Americans viewed as threatening by Cuba. Bomb attacks and threats to Cuban citizens and leaders by Cuba-Americans are far from ancient history.

The Cuban government is well aware, for example, that Luis Posada Carriles now lives freely in Miami despite being accused of both the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner and assassination attempts against Fidel Castro in 2000. The Cuban shoot-down of a small plane flown by Cuban exiles from Miami to drop political leaflets over Cuba occurred after repeated warnings, and resulted in a life sentence for one of the Cubans released in the deal.

The prisoners on both sides had been an obstacle to cooperation between the two countries even on issues of import to both. Gross was released on humanitarian grounds and the Cuban prisoners were exchanged for an American intelligence agent held for 20 years in Cuba.

Failed sanctions

For the past 50 years, the US-Cuba policy has had two goals: preventing Cuba from exporting its revolution to Latin America and Africa, and removing the Castros from power. While the US has succeeded in the first goal, the second remains elusive.

The US' trade embargo has hurt Cuba's economy, but its government has survived. Most Latin American, European, African, and Asian countries trade with Cuba.

Inside Story - US-Cuba: Foes no more

Indeed, the failures of the US policy in Cuba have influenced the way policymakers think about sanctions. Today, the US favours targeted sanctions against specific individuals or industries, like the current sanctions against Russian officials for its incursions into Ukraine, while avoiding broad sanctions that are rarely helpful and simply punish ordinary citizens.

Cuba is not a sponsor of terrorism

Cuba has been on the US state sponsor of terrorism list - and subject to resulting financial sanctions - since 1982 for supporting insurgencies in Latin America and Africa. But Cuba is widely considered to have ended its support for insurgent groups well over 20 years ago.

The State Department's 2014 report stated: "There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups," and went on to applaud the Cuban government's role in returning ETA separatists to Spain and in hosting Colombia's peace talks with the FARC guerrillas. It seems clear that US politics rather than any evidence of support for terrorism have kept Cuba on the list. President Obama signalled a change on this policy a few days ago.

Cuba is changing

Let's be clear: Cuba is no democracy. Politically, Cuba is a one-party state run by the Communist Party and veterans of the 1959 revolution without competitive elections. Raul Castro made modest but important steps, though, by announcing term limits for all officials, including his own term to end in 2018, and by bringing in younger leaders into the governing Council of State. The Cuban government has also lifted travel restrictions on Cubans, including dissidents, and allowed some private enterprise.

Half-a-million Cubans now own small businesses. Some long-term political prisoners have been released already, and the Cuban government agreed to release more prisoners at the Obama administration's request.  The new US policies to allow more American travel and remittances to Cuba, and to provide the technology needed for easier internet and telecom access for Cubans now put the onus on the Cuban government to deny this access to ideas and interchange to their own citizens.

Cuba has a long road ahead. Critics of the government are still harassed and detained on a regular basis. But Cuban society is changing. And unlike the failed policies of the past, the new overtures announced by President Obama will do much to empower Cubans to choose their own future.

Jennifer McCoy is a distinguished professor of political science at Georgia State University, Americas Program director at The Carter Center, and coauthor of International Mediation in Venezuela.

Source: Al Jazeera