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A half-century of embargoes and sanctions haven’t brought freedom to the people of Cuba, perhaps a wave will.

President Barack Obama and his family spent much of this week visiting with Cuba dictator Raul Castro, the first U.S. president to step foot on the island in 90 years.

The president is taking a good deal of heat for unilaterally normalizing relations with the communist nation. He was specifically targeted for cavorting with Castro, with whom he attended a baseball game, where he was caught on camera doing the wave.

I’m no fan of the Castro brothers, or communists of any sort. And it was jarring to watch a tone deaf Obama kicking back in a baseball stadium while Brussels was being ripped apart by terrorist bombs.

But on the whole, I find myself in rare agreement with the president. What we have been doing in Cuba has not worked. And it rings with hypocrisy.

The United States long ago withdrew from the high ground in its approach to commies, tyrants and dictators.

We are fully engaged with a host of nations whose citizens are oppressed, denied basic freedoms and live in constant fear.

Our national economy depends on trade with China, whose factories are filled with child and slave laborers and whose prisons are bulging with political prisoners. The Obama administration last year inked a deal lifting sanctions on Iran, perhaps the most evil regime in the world.

So why single out Cuba?

Certainly, Cuba continues to abuse its people. It represses dissent and jails those who protest. Fidel and Raul Castro are not worthy of being embraced by an American president.

But the methods the United States has used to force Cuba to change have not worked. Its strongmen would rather suffer, or have their people suffer, the deprivations brought on by isolation. That path was never going to lead to freedom in Cuba.

I’m not so naive to think engagement will work miracles. Normalizing relations with totalitarian regimes and exposing their people to the fresh air of liberty has had mixed results. Thawing the Cold War did help bring about the downfall of the Soviet Union, but individual pieces of the old regime, most notably Russia, have backslid.

While economic alliances with the West have sparked an entrepreneurial wave in China and somewhat opened its economy, its people still live under the heavy hand of a repressive government.

My fault with Obama’s outreach to Cuba is that he got so little, if anything, in return. Cuba needs America far more than America needs Cuba. There was an opportunity, and perhaps still is, to make this work for the Cuban people. To secure the release of political prisoners. To liberalize speech and dissent. To create a small opening in the cloud of oppression that covers the island.

After Castro challenged a reporter to name the island’s political prisoners, advocates provided a list of 89 dissidents being held for their views. Their wives and mothers are routinely beaten by authorities during their protests. Obama could have done more for them.

But just as with Iran, Obama wanted a deal more than he wanted a good deal.

Still, normalizing relations with Cuba at least brings some consistency to U.S. foreign policy. And it offers more hope to the people of Cuba than did isolation and embargoes.

Nolan Finley’s “Little Red Hen: A Collection of Columns from Detroit’s Conservative Voice,” is available from Amazon, iBooks and Barnes & Noble Nook.

nfinley@detroitnews.com

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