WASHINGTON -- For much of the 20th century, the United States policy on Latin America was to resist communism there by supporting any national leadership that wasn't communist, even some rightist regimes.
Likewise, for the past 50 years Washington has had a policy of trying to isolate the Western Hemisphere's leading Marxist country, Cuba.
Now the administration of President Barack Obama is ready to resume talks with Havana on improving the migration of Cubans who wish to live in the United States, and restore direct postal service between the two countries.
Meanwhile, Obama has sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to attend the inauguration of El Salvador's new leftist president, Mauricio Funes.
During the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in April, Obama made it clear that he was interested in taking his country's Cuba policy in a new direction.
"The policy that we've had in place for 50 years hasn't worked the way we want it to. The Cuban people are not free. And that's our lodestone, our North Star, when it comes to our policy in Cuba," Obama said.
Roger Noriega, who served under President George W. Bush as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs says that's a fallacious argument.
Noriega says that under Fidel and Raul Castro, the Cuban government has never been held accountable for its violations of human rights. He says the Marxist government would have collapsed if other countries in the Americas had pressed Havana meaningfully for a more responsive government.
Noriega also notes that during the campaign, Obama expressed an interest in presidential-level talks with the leaders of unfriendly governments, something that would have been "a terrible blunder." But now, he says, the U.S. leader is thinking smaller, to his credit.
"I think [Obama's] getting a lot of points in the region, being seen taking what are rather small steps in reversing policies three or four or five years in the making -- not making wholesale changes in our policy," Noriega says.
"I would give Obama and his team a lot of credit for insisting on democratization, concrete steps toward respect for human rights, etc., from the [Cuban] regime before significant changes are made to U.S. policy."
How much can be expected to come out of these talks, and the other overtures Obama has made to leaders with different approaches to governance? Noriega says not much that directly involves U.S.-Cuban relations.
But he says he suspects there may be broader benefits for improved ties in many other Latin American countries.
"Tactically [Obama's Latin America policy] gives the opportunity for the new U.S. administration to signal to the hemisphere that it's turned the page," Noriega says.
"But the Cubans always disappoint us. I doubt very seriously this will produce significant changes in our relations with Cuba. However, it does give the Obama administration an opportunity to signal to Latin America that it is pursuing new channels of communication and dialogue with the Cuban regime."
Signal To The Region
Thomas Carothers agrees that it's far too soon to expect any real change in U.S.-Cuban relations. Carothers is the vice president for international politics and governance at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, another Washington think tank.
What the Obama administration hopes for is one thing, Carothers says, but what actually happens depends on too many variables that are outside Obama's control. Much the same can be said of the Cuban leadership, he says.
"I think the United States hopes that it's the beginning of talks that go progressively deeper into a wider range of issues. I think for the Cubans it's a sort of controlled experiment. They know they need to respond in some ways to the Obama administration's movement," Carothers says.
"On the other hand, I think there are divisions within the Cuban establishment. I think for the Cubans, it's just a single step, which we cannot predict what might come further. Whereas I think we know that the United States would like to get progressively more engaged."
Like Noriega, Carothers says such small initiatives as sending Clinton to Funes's inauguration and inviting Cuba back to the talks tells all Latin America that the United States is ready for active diplomatic relations with the entire region without feeling the need to endorse a specific government with which it has substantial disagreements.
But Carothers says this is nothing entirely new. Instead he views the Obama outreach as an extension of the policy pursued by Bush. While Bush may have shunned some Latin American governments with which he disagreed, he also got on fairly well with Brazil's leftist president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.
"It's true that there are leaders that you described as leftist, but the Salvadoran president was duly elected, and it's quite different from the Cuban regime, which wasn't. President Bush was able to accept Lula in Brazil and various other governments that they didn't really like very much," Carothers says.
"So this isn't just the Obama administration that's willing to deal with governments of the left in Latin America. But there clearly is a signal of trying to say, 'Let's get beyond division between the United States and Latin America,' and the tendency of the previous administration to want to kind of divide the region between friends and enemies."
Little is certain on how U.S. relations with Cuba will evolve, Carothers says, because everything depends on how each side speaks and reacts to the other. But as for Washington's relations with the rest of Latin America, both he and Noriega agree that we're already seeing the beginning of a new and potentially fruitful relationship.