By Vicki Needham - 12/19/14 06:00 AM EST
President Obama’s decision to seek full diplomatic relations with Cuba has received rave reviews in Latin America, where the U.S. policy of isolating Havana has long been unpopular.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said on his Twitter feed that the actions will “change the history of the hemisphere.” He pledged his cooperation to “bridge differences” between the two nations.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto applauded the “president’s courage in charting a new course in U.S. relations with Latin America and the Caribbean, and committed to supporting the initiative,” during a call with Vice President Biden.
“We all thought this day would never come," Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff said in a press conference.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, a staunch critic of U.S. foreign policy and Cuba’s best ally, called the move a “a courageous and necessary gesture” saying that Obama “has taken perhaps the most important step of his presidency.”
For years, Latin American leaders have been insistent that the United States drop its embargo on Cuba and allow the nation to participate in the Summit of the Americas.
Analysts argue that the steps to ease travel and trade restrictions could soothe tensions and raise U.S. influence in the hemisphere.
Brookings Institution expert Ted Piccone, who is on the ground in Havana this week, said in a blog post that this “is precisely the kind of bold presidential leadership needed to move our relations not only with Cuba but with the region and the world to a more positive and constructive place.”
He wrote that the changes “will pave the way to revive U.S. leadership in the region in time for the Summit of the Americas next April.”
Julia Sweig, director of Latin America Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, said the change in policy comes at a good time and could create “a very different vibe” at the spring summit.
With Cuban President Raúl Castro set to step down in 2018, it gives the U.S. a chance to shape its future political and economic policy and it will “all happen faster with better diplomatic relations with the U.S.,” she said.
Officials with U.S. business groups are hopeful the steps could break down trade barriers in the region.
Jodi Bond, vice president of the Americas for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said engagement between the U.S. and Cuba should lead to huge benefits for U.S. companies operating in the region.
“This is a positive step that allows other countries that are in need of economic development to engage as a hemisphere and, as a whole, share some best practices what will promote investment and economic development,” Bond said.
Chile, Peru and Mexico are all a part of the 12-nation talks over the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the U.S. has 12 of its 20 global free trade agreements with Latin America, including Colombia and Panama.
Gary Clyde Hufbauer, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said that the U.S. can play a big role in what happens on the island.
“I think the U.S. can do a lot to influence post-Castro Cuba,” he said.
“What the U.S. does not want is repetition of Russian oligarchy model in Cuba, which could be a very natural course of events,” he said.
“We can have a big effect on what happens.”