Latin America salutes Washington for Cuba reforms

Latin American leaders hailed Wednesday’s news of a U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, saying it marked a turning point in the region.

In Argentina, where the leaders of the Mercosur nations were meeting, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner congratulated Cuba for beginning the process of normalizing relations with the United States “with absolute dignity and on equal footing.”

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos — one of Washington’s staunchest allies — said that normalizing relations would “change the history of the hemisphere.”

The U.S. embargo of the island was designed to force a regime change. But more than half a century later, the Castros are still in power and it was the U.S. that was increasingly isolated.

As the U.S. blocked Cuba from the Organization of American States and the Summit of the Americas, the region formed its own organizations, including the CELAC — which includes every country in the hemisphere but the United States and Canada.

The United Nations has also been increasingly vocal about the need to end the embargo. During the last vote in October, only Israel came to the United States’ defense.

“This has been a bothersome pebble in the shoe of U.S.-Latin American relations for some time now,” said Peter Schechter, the director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council. “And for all intents and purposes, that pebble is gone.”

He also hoped that the regions leader could now take Cuba to task for its human rights abuses without the island using the embargo as cover.

The reforms come as Cuba’s principal financial backer in the region, Venezuela, is struggling with an economic crisis of its own. Venezuela ships 100,000 barrels of subsidized oil to Cuba each day but there are fears that the pipeline might run dry.

On Wednesday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said the reforms prove that sanctions don’t work. Venezuela itself is being threatened with targeted sanctions from Washington.

Even so, Maduro called President Barack Obama “brave” for taking the “necessary” steps, calling it “perhaps the most important decision of his presidency.”