President Obama's New Policy on Cuba Could Be a Good Start

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 20: A protester holds an American flag and a Cuban one as she joins with others opposed to U.S. Presiden
MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 20: A protester holds an American flag and a Cuban one as she joins with others opposed to U.S. President Barack Obama's announcement earlier in the week of a change to the United States Cuba policy stand together at Jose Marti park on December 20, 2014 in Miami, Florida. President Obama announced a move toward normalizing the relationship with Cuba after a swap of prisoners took place. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In 1992 Miami Herald commentator Andrés Oppenheimer won a Pulitzer Prize for his book Castro's Final Hour, thus giving "new meaning to the words final and hour," as the late filmmaker and writer Saul Landau would wryly remark many years later. Fidel Castro would survive 11 U.S. presidents, at least eight [PDF] CIA plots to assassinate him, and a few premature obituaries, and live to see world's most powerful country finally give in and recognize -- in principle, at least -- Cuba's right to national self-determination.

On December 17 President Obama announced that he would pursue full diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Most commentators here have missed what is the most important driving force behind this long-overdue spasm of normalcy from the north. Since 1998, left governments have been elected and re-elected in one country after another until by now they govern the majority of the region. Some of these new left presidents -- Lula Da Silva and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Evo Morales of Bolivia, José Mujica of Uruguay -- personally suffered violence and imprisonment at the hands of U.S.-backed dictatorships. They didn't hold grudges, but all of the new left presidents had a deep appreciation for the importance of national and regional self-determination.

These left governments created new institutions such as UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations) and CELAC (the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) in order to pursue these common goals. The CELAC is an organization that was formed as an alternative to the Organization of American States (OAS) (which is often dominated by Washington), and includes all countries in the Americas except for the United States and Canada.

The CELAC was formed in response to the June 2009 military coup against the democratic president of Honduras, Mel Zelaya. The United States had manipulated the OAS in its successful efforts to prevent Zelaya from returning to office. In her recent book, "Hard Choices," Hillary Clinton acknowledges for the first time her own role in this effort.

Washington's role in helping the Honduran military coup succeed really set back relations with Latin America, whose new leaders had until that point held great hopes for America's new president, Barack Obama. By 2014, the Obama administration probably had the worst relationship with Latin America of any U.S. government in decades, including even the George W. Bush administration. At the 2012 Summit of the Americas, Washington was isolated, and even President Manuel Santos of Colombia -- a non-left government that remains closer to Washington than most of South America -- said that there could not be another Summit without Cuba.

President Obama's announcement is not the end of the Cold War, as some observers have concluded -- not even in Latin America, let alone Russia. Obama's announcement comes on the heels of legislation in Congress, led by the same Cuban-Americans and neo-conservatives, for sanctions against Venezuela. The State Department will continue funding its ironically named "democracy promotion" programs in the region that seek to undermine democratic left governments. And the vast majority of Americans still can't go to Cuba, an outrageous restriction of our own fundamental freedoms.

But the announcement is an historic change, to be sure. It is a recognition that this 54-year attempt at regime change in Cuba, which has only helped to isolate the U.S. in the region and the world, has been a complete and utter failure. It is a defeat for the anti-Cuba lobby, which does not have much of a political base outside of their own circles -- not even among the majority of Cuban Americans -- and some Republican politicians. It is a clear victory for the rule of law in international relations, and for the right of countries to self-determination. In short: a good start, and we'll see what happens.

This article was distributed by Tribune Content Agency on December 24, 2014, and published by the Arizona Sunday Star and other newspapers.