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New England editorial roundup

December 20, 2014

The Day of New London (Conn.), Dec. 19, 2014

President Obama offered a succinct reason for a major change in United States foreign policy toward Cuba: The old policy was an abject failure.

“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach,” said the president.

In the early 1960s, the administration of President Kennedy began the U.S. policy of cutting off economic and diplomatic relations with the communist island nation just 90 miles from American territory. Every successive administration since has stuck by the approach.

Instead of the desired regime change, Fidel Castro retained his dictatorial control for nearly 50 years, only to be succeeded by brother Raul Castro. Cuba’s state-run companies remain closely tied to its military. An entrenched bureaucracy is protected by an extensive and intrusive security system. It is all answerable to the Castros.

As foreign policies go, it would be hard to find another that has been as unsuccessful, yet which continued to enjoy consistent, bipartisan support.

It has been a policy driven far more by politics than pragmatism. The Cuban-American exile community of southern Florida, driven from their homeland and with family members who suffered atrocities at the hands of the Castro regime, have remained largely united in support of a policy they see as punishing the dictatorship. They view easing sanctions as appeasement.

As for the politics, those Cuban-Americans are a significant voting bloc in a crucial swing state.

However, rather than weakening the Cuban government, the American embargo has served to protect it, providing an easy villain to blame for the hardships suffered by the Cuban people and the shortcomings of its government. The message is: It’s all the fault of the American capitalists.

Cuba’s problems are many, including poor food production, week foreign investment, cash shortages and technology that lags behind most of the developed world.

The series of steps announced by the president change the equation. President Obama restored full diplomatic relations. Going as far as he can without congressional action, the president is acting to ease restrictions on travel and trade. The United States is also removing Cuba from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, a designation that dates back to a time when Cuba was supporting insurgencies in Latin American and elsewhere.

President Obama authorized the export of building materials for private residential construction, agricultural equipment for small, private farmers and goods for use by Cuba’s small but growing class of entrepreneurs. Exports of smartphones, computers and other telecommunications equipment to Cuba will now be allowed and U.S. financial institutions can open accounts in Cuba.

The steps announced by President Obama will make it easier for U.S. technology companies to improve Cuba’s antiquated Internet system.

It should all lead to a major boost in new money flowing to the island. Pressure will increase on Raul Castro to accelerate the modest steps he has taken to allow private ownership and entrepreneurism. The expectations of the Cuban people will grow and the ability of the government to blame Washington will shrink.

The diplomatic steps leading to this policy change were sophisticated and tactful. Talks went on quietly for about 18 months, largely in Canada. But the two sides also brought into the discussions the Vatican and Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, who urged along a prisoner exchange that laid the groundwork for policy change.

“You just cannot overstate the importance of the pope,” a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The New York Times.

The Cuban government released Alan Gross, held in Havana since 2009 for distributing communication equipment, and also an American intelligence agent imprisoned for two decades. The administration did not disclose his name. The United States released three Cuban spies held for 14 years in federal prison.

Only Congress can lift the full economic embargo. It is unlikely to act anytime soon. This is not all bad. Recall that the attempt at a swift transition to free markets and democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union did not go well, breeding corruption and concentrating power.

The best outcome is a gradual weaving of free-market capitalism into Cuba’s socialist system, ultimately leading to political reforms. At some point Congress will recognize the new policy is the better option.

The Republican of Springfield (Mass.), Dec. 18, 2014

The biggest roadblock to a safer game of football might be the players themselves.

Chicago Bears safety Chris Conte said he would accept a significantly shorter life if it was the price for playing in the NFL. Conte has suffered two concussions in a sport where brain damage to past and current players has provoked a fierce debate about the NFL’s responsibility to the long-term health of its players.

Conte is not alone. In an ESPN survey of 320 NFL players, 85 percent said would play with a concussion in the Super Bowl, rather than sitting out.

Stories of early dementia and other brain-related injuries, some leading to suicide, have dramatized the damage done to players by an inherently violent game. Since 2011, more than 5,000 former players and their families have sued the NFL, which reached a settlement through negotiation, only to have some plaintiffs pursue further legal avenues.

The most famous case involves Dave Duerson, who, like Conte, was a Chicago Bears defensive back. Before shooting himself to death at age 50 in 2011, Duerson arranged to have his brain preserved for study, igniting a debate over cognitive degeneration and other concussion-related effects on NFL players.

Objections about NFL irresponsibility have come from former players (some of whom played decades ago) who were unaware of the long-term risks when they played. The lawsuits have generally accused the NFL of covering up or denying those risks.

Conte’s case indicates a different twist. Like adults who smoke cigarettes after decades of warnings, hundreds of players are competing with full knowledge of the indisputable and documented risks and consequences.

Can a league be held responsible if its players know the damage they are doing to themselves and choose to play, anyway?

Conte said he would accept losing 10 or 15 years off his life to play in the NFL. He has no way of knowing whether he might instead perish in his 40s, as other former players have done — or succumb to the mental or physical damage that would make pure survival a tragic existence.

NFL players today accept the price of their occupation. They do it for the pay, the glamour and the realization of childhood dreams.

A huge fan base laments the tragedies when they occur, but they accept it, too, every time they watch their favorite team’s stars hurl their bodies into a brutal, violent sport.

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