The big surprise in the announcement is not about the new official ties after more than half a century. Rather, it is that Cuba and the US took so long to catch up with the global changes that have made their frozen relations seem so archaic.
Long gone are the 20th-century constructs that kept them apart: the cold war, anti-colonialism, anti-US rhetoric in Latin America, Marxism, and big-power positioning of nuclear missiles. A younger generation of Cuban-Americans in Florida has shifted views on the US embargo. Few in Cuba believe in communism.
The two nations now need to be bound by those things that are uniting the world rather than the things of the past that have kept them apart.
Governments matter less today as more individuals are empowered by the rapid spread of ideas, travel, and telecommunications. Nongovernmental groups, known as civil society, act as a source of change more than government does.
That is why Mr. Obama insisted Cuba’s activists have a seat at the table when Cuba is finally allowed to attend the Summit of the Americas this April. Civil society and citizens, not just leaders, “are shaping our future,” the president said.
Obama is banking on a flood of private investment and travel to move Cuba away from its dictatorial, anti-market ways. And he has authorized better Internet connections to the island nation.
As more people around the world seek to be online, governments are being forced to change the way they deal with each other. People engagement rather than a trade embargo is a better tactic for change when people in the 21st century have so many more tools that can reach across borders.
The arc of history in recent centuries has been toward more individual freedom. But the ways to promote freedom must change as freedom itself creates better means to reach people who are less free. The US recognition of Cuba is not really of its regime but of its people’s potential.