A 45-minute phone call — the first between presidents of Cuba and the United States in more than 50 years — sealed an agreement that could end the pointless economic standoff that has held the island’s people hostage for generations.

It will take an act of Congress, long overdue, to lift the U.S. embargo put in place shortly after Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba. But the steps announced Wednesday by President Barack Obama are a step — make that a shove — in the right direction.

The U.S. will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, opening an embassy in Havana for the first time since 1961. It will further ease restrictions on travel and banking and allow Cuban nationals to send more money to family on the island. Restrictions on tourism also will be eased, and Americans traveling to Cuba will be allowed to bring home up to $400 in goods, including $100 worth of tobacco and alcohol (read: rum and cigars).

American contractor Alan Gross, held in a Cuban prison for five years as an enemy of the revolution, was sent home Wednesday as a supposed humanitarian bonus in a prisoner swap that saw three Cuban spies held in the U.S. released in exchange for the return of a U.S. agent jailed in Cuba for 20 years.

Raul Castro, the younger of the octogenarian brothers who have called the shots in Cuba since 1959, also agreed to free 53 Cubans that the U.S. says are political prisoners. It’s a big deal.

For half a century, the U.S. has stubbornly refused to engage with Cuba, hoping to pressure the government toward democracy and humanitarian reforms. It hasn’t worked. In recent years, Americans — and many Cuban Americans — have called for a softening of relations.

But hardliners in Congress (and potential 2016 presidential hopefuls) are behind the curve. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has suggested strengthening the embargo, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was quick to blast Wednesday’s developments.

“This is going to do absolutely nothing to further human rights and democracy in Cuba,” Rubio told the Associated Press. “But it potentially goes a long way in providing the economic lift that the Castro regime needs to become permanent fixtures in Cuba for generations to come.”

It’s the same argument we’ve been hearing for more than 50 years. It’s time to try something else.

Editorial by the Chicago Tribune

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