When in a few decades historians look back at the presidency of Barack Obama, they will see this as an important achievement: The resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba, after more than half a century of often deep hostility on the political stage. Ultimately, Obama's predecessors should have approached Havana years ago. No communist state can remain the way it is if its citizens enjoy the benefits of a free-market economy. Sooner or later, dictators are forced to compromise. But Washington long remained stubborn, even after the end of the Cold War in Europe.
Without meaning to, previous US presidents strengthened the communists in Havana. If anything went wrong over the decades, they blamed the "evil Americans" - whether for the bottlenecks in consumer goods or for the poor infrastructure. That should change with the establishment of diplomatic relations. US capital will flood Cuba, at least in the medium term. And hopefully it will wash away the political legacy of the Castro brothers.
Why did it take Washington so long to develop a pragmatic and flexible approach to the Caribbean island? Until 1991, the American-Cuban rivalry was part of the Cold War. Havana became an outpost of the Soviet Union, even if this was not what former President Fidel Castro had initially wanted. When the red flag was taken down from the roofs of the Kremlin, an economically difficult time began in Cuba. Presidents George Bush (the first and second) and Bill Clinton hoped that sooner or later communist rule in Havana would become superfluous and ultimately disappear. But the Castros proved to be tenacious and simply stayed in power, like dinosaurs who did not want to understand that their time is over.
At the same time the influence of Cuban exiles in the United States remained strong. Their current figurehead is Florida Senator Marco Rubio, now a Republican presidential candidate. A son of Cuban parents, he is a vehement opponent of establishing diplomatic relations with Havana. Rubio regarded Obama's decision to establish diplomatic relations as a "betrayal" of the victims of the Castro regime.
Hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles share his sentiment, especially those who are older than 40. In contrast, younger Cubans support an end to the blockade policy. They want to visit the land of their parents and grandparents. Just 150 kilometers (90 miles) separate the Florida Keys from Cuba, but until now bridging that distance was difficult, or impossible.
Opening the diplomatic door
That will now change with the establishment of diplomatic relations. Travel to the Caribbean island will be simple and inexpensive, and regular flights will start between Cuba and New York and other cities. In the autumn, they will be joined by ferry connections between the two countries. A boat takes three-and-a-half hours to reach Cuba from Florida - and a ticket should cost $170 (about 160 euros). The interest is enormous, according to ship owners. The mood is somewhat similar to a gold rush.
So, all is well? Not quite. Opening the diplomatic door will bring light into the darkness of Cuban politics. The people on the island will look at their everyday life with different eyes. Political change will come. And it will be difficult. That's the lesson drawn from the experience of the former communist countries in Eastern Europe.
But by then, at the latest, the Cubans will need a financially strong partner who can help them to cope with the political and economic transition to a free society. The US can and must be this partner - but only if it learns from the mistakes of the past. One of them is trying to have a say in the governance of other countries.
Partnership means to meet on an equal footing. With the establishment of diplomatic relations, a good start has been made - nothing more.