One year since Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced plans to restore diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, many who are playing key roles in trying to bring the two sides together on several fronts say that in many ways much more has been accomplished than they expected, but that many roadblocks remain.
“You can really feel the difference in Cuba from month to month from this time last year,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a bipartisan public policy group that focuses on the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations.
Williams, or members of his group, travel to Cuba about twice a month to continue nurturing ties between the two nations.
“Some [changes] were moving, a lot of trends were already in place,” Williams said to Fox News Latino. “But they’ve accelerated at a pace beyond what anybody could have expected.”
Williams, like others who have been traveling to Cuba for some time, say the number of new entrepreneurial ventures is perceptibly higher, and there is an optimism and hope for a better future among everyday Cubans that didn’t exist before.
“The expectation and hope that things will improve are broadly shared,” Williams said, “people are expecting that their lives are going to get better. It’s touched some people more directly than others, such as people who interact with tourists.”
On Thursday, U.S. officials said they had reached an agreement with Cuba allowing dozens of direct daily flights, likely starting in 2016. Many believe this will drive down the often high cost of traveling to Cuba from the United States, and increase contact between Cubans and Americans, leading to more changes in Cuban society.
Many people in the tourist industry, both in Cuba and the United States, say that hotels and other accommodations, for instance, are filled to capacity months in advance.
“If you’re an engineer, life may not have changed as dramatically for you, but that’s not the result of U.S. policy.”
Many experts, and people who have supported and pushed the restoration of relations, concede that Cuba has been slow, or reluctant in some cases, to let go of old ways of handling things such technology and control over its population.
In a statement marking the anniversary of the agreement to restore diplomatic ties, Obama said in a statement: “We continue to have differences with the Cuban government, but we raise those issues directly, and we will always stand for human rights and the universal values that we support around the globe.”
“Change does not happen overnight, and normalization will be a long journey. The last 12 months, however, are a reminder of the progress we can make when we set the course toward a better future.”
Critics of the restoration of ties say the Obama administration made a deal in which the United States has gained little and Cuban leaders have made no concessions in important areas, such as human rights and freedom of speech.
They say Cuba agreed to restore ties only after seeing its economy further suffer because of the financial crisis of its ally, Venezuela, its main oil supplier. The critics say that Cuba entered the deal only to benefit itself economically, and has no intentions of implementing democratic reforms – a goal the Obama administration has highlighted as an impetus for the change in policy toward Cuba.
“President Obama granted diplomatic recognition to the Castro dictatorship,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican, in a statement, “removed it from the state sponsors of terrorism list, released convicted spies including one serving a life sentence for conspiracy to murder, and eased sanctions on financial transactions and trade with a dictatorship that holds the worst human rights record in our hemisphere.”
“What have the U.S., and the Cuban people, gained from President Obama's policy?” continued Diaz-Balart. “Just take a look at the facts. Political arrests totaled 1,447 in November, the highest monthly tally this year, and there have been 7,686 political arrests this year to date.”
Supporters of the renewed ties say that after a trade and travel embargo against Cuba that spanned more than 50 years, a different approach to advance U.S. interests and human rights goals was necessary.
"After 54 years of a failed, punitive policy that had achieved none of its objectives, President Obama and President Raul Castro wisely decided it was time to chart a new path," Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who played a central role in talks that led up to the restored relations, said on the Senate floor Thursday.
He took issue with "the small handful of members of Congress who continue to defend a discredited policy of isolation that has been repudiated by large majorities of their own constituents, denounced by every other government in this hemisphere, and that even they acknowledge has not succeeded."
"Yet their answer is to keep it in place," Leahy said, adding that he never believed that announcing a change in U.S.-Cuba policy would abruptly eliminate oppression on the island.
"Cuba’s leaders are steadfast believers in a repressive political system that has enabled them to hold onto power unchallenged for more than half a century," Leahy said. "Their economic policies have been a disaster, resulting in daily hardships for the Cuban people ...Why not support the private sector in Cuba as we do everywhere else in the world? Why not open the United States to an emerging Cuban market?"
Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.