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In our opinion: Obama's visit to Cuba hopefully to normalize relations

President Barack Obama, right, talks to Cuba's President Raul Castro, left, before boarding Air Force One on his way to Argentina, in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. Behind are Obama's daughters Sasha, second from right, and Malia, partially covere
President Barack Obama, right, talks to Cuba's President Raul Castro, left, before boarding Air Force One on his way to Argentina, in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. Behind are Obama's daughters Sasha, second from right, and Malia, partially covered. Obama's visit was a crowning moment in his and Castro's bold bid to restore ties after a half-century diplomatic freeze.
Desmond Boylan, Associated Press

An exhibition game in a foreign capital for the Major League Baseball team from Tampa Bay will be one of the team’s shortest road trips this year: a plane ride of less than an hour to Havana, Cuba, where American influences have seeped deeply into the culture of a country long isolated by Cold War policies that are now far into extra innings.

President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba has pushed along the forces of change that will hopefully, and perhaps imminently, result in a nearly full normalization of relations between two countries with deep historic connections. More than 2 million people of Cuban ancestry live in the United States, and there is clear evidence among Cuba’s 11 million citizens that vigorous support exists for closer ties to the U.S.

There are still obstacles ahead, but the president’s junket has demonstrated they may be increasingly less formidable. Cuban President Raul Castro was clearly agitated by a reporter’s question over the jailing of political dissidents, but the very fact that the head of Cuba’s authoritarian government stood before journalists to be questioned about his history of suppressing liberty is itself rare and telling. It was in fact a stunning moment for Cuban citizens, accustomed to their leaders offering little beyond threadbare propaganda on the subject of political suppression.

The Human Rights Watch in its 2015 report on Cuba said the country has largely ended the practice of giving long prison sentences to political opponents, though the number of arrests and short-term detentions has gone up. The trend may suggest the Castro regime is relenting to the inevitable failure of its efforts to permanently stifle dissidence, even though it may still be clinging to a habitual need to harass and intimidate those it sees as a threat to its 56-year reign.

Castro has said he will step down in 2018, about the time Google recently promised to begin bringing high-speed Internet access to all of Cuba, where now less than 5 percent of the population has access to the Web. The transfer of power to another communist, who will undoubtedly ascend with Castro’s blessing, will not mark a major change in the direction of Cuba’s leadership. But the harbingers of technological and economic changes are real, and they will hopefully bring about a more open and tempered political climate. That is something the U.S. has aimed at for nearly two generations.

It was once feared Cuba would serve as a stepping stone for the spread of communism into the Western Hemisphere. That Cold War angst is now quaintly obsolescent. It is in the best interests of the U.S. to continue to work toward strong and open ties to Cuba, as it is in the best interests of Cubans to cleave more closely to the influences of the United States, which is now poised to finally dissolve policies that have relegated the Cuban people to decades of fruitless isolation.