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EDITORIAL: Time for new course in Cuba

If something doesn’t work for more than 50 years, it might work in 60, right? Or 75?

Well, maybe not.

President Barack Obama was correct Wednesday to chart a new course for U.S.-Cuba relations. He said the United States will begin to normalize relations, including reopening the embassy in Havana, taking steps to remove Cuba from the State Department list of nations that sponsor terrorism, and easing travel and trade restrictions.

Critics immediately pounced. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, said: “This is going to do absolutely nothing to further human rights and democracy in Cuba.”

Closer to home, U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., said “Cuba continues to refuse to hold free and fair elections, release political prisoners, and legalize independent labor, press, and political opposition.”

Those statements imply our previous course would eventually further human rights, lead to free elections and otherwise bring Cuba into the 21st century. But after all these years, there’s little reason to think that. If the United States’ cold shoulder Cold War approach was going to remake Cuba, it would have done so by now.

Cuba’s 11 million people struggle with a repressive police state and a backward economy that delivers few benefits. If trying to isolate the communist island nation hasn’t helped those people, perhaps closer ties will.

New diplomacy with Cuba, which included the involvement of Pope Francis, already has brought one clear benefit: Alan Gross, who had been working in Cuba to set up uncensored Internet access, and an unnamed American intelligence agent were released.

Moving forward won’t be easy. Ending our embargo will require the consent of a recalcitrant Congress. And Obama acknowledged he expects Cuba to pursue policies that at times will conflict with ours.

But at least we’re stepping off a path that has led us to nothing but dead ends for half a century.