I was a one-time smuggler. I trafficked hand-rolled Cuban cigars. I inched my way through customs dripping with nervous perspiration. I was re-entering the country from Canada, and was petrified my stash of premium Cohibas would be discovered. They were a special gift for a loved one. They were in my boot. It was years ago and that episode ended my cigar smuggling. But if the just announced change in Cuban policy had been in place then, I could have legally bought those cigars here.

I have seen the old Cuban-U.S. policy firsthand. Part of a journalists’ group traveling on a special license to learn about Cuba’s art and culture. This is how superstars Beyoncé and Jay-Z were able to travel there a few months ago. My group was eager to hear Cuban music and see Cuba’s national ballet company. But mostly we wanted to visit while Fidel Castro was still in charge and the strict embargo was in place. We wanted to see the impact of a state-controlled media where TV programming was all propaganda, and open Internet access was only available to the privileged. We wanted to see the place where dissidents ended up in prison or worse.

At the time the spies known as the Cuban Five had just been caught and jailed by U.S. authorities. In Cuba they were heroes — their faces plastered on billboards. I thought about that when I heard they were part of the prisoner exchange, a key component of the new relaxed U.S.-Cuba policy negotiated between now Cuban President Raul Castro and President Obama.

The new policy will have both an immediate and long-term impact.

Immediately, the Cuban exile community will be able to send more money to relatives, and Americans will have an easier time traveling there, and while there, will be able to use bank machines and credit cards. Long term, the new policy will widen the door for American businesses long wanting access to Cuba. I remember admiring the beautiful yet crumbling architecture and imagining how skilled Americans could restore it. But at the same time, I worried that the Americans might trample over the cultural details that are uniquely Cuba.

But I understand why there was cheering in Cuban neighborhoods when Castro announced the embargo was lifted. I had observed the tough everyday life of ordinary Cubans who get universal health care, but whose basic living supplies are rationed. We traveled outside Havana when an elderly woman stopped me. She pointed to her own dark skin and back to me. I thought she was signaling that we had the same skin color. Turned out she was begging for soap. Her rations had run out. It was the reality for many poor Cubans. And this is the Cuba many older Cuban exiles remember, and why many are furious about what they see as a capitulation to the Castro brothers and communism.

Critics are right to raise questions about human rights abuses, and to be skeptical about Castro’s promises. But there is also hope that we are witnessing the last gasp of a government whose time never came.

And that can’t come soon enough for the Cuban people embracing this move as a first step toward real reform.