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U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday wrapped up a historic visit to Cuba that opened a new chapter in bilateral ties, but also laid bare lingering impediments to a full-fledged thaw between the former Cold War rivals.
The three-day trip, a symbolic culmination of a process of rapprochement that started in late 2014, is seen as a bold gambit by the U.S. president to cement his political legacy in spite of opposition from critics at home, and part of his effort to better relations with Latin America.
After Obama set foot on Cuba in the first visit by a sitting U.S. president in nearly 90 years, Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz were quick to dismiss the trip as misguided foreign policy.
Trump tweeted that Cuban leader Raul Castro had "no respect" for the president and his family because he did not greet them when Air Force One landed on the island on Sunday afternoon.
Cruz also slammed the trip, arguing that the United States is sending a dangerous message to "political prisoners languishing in dungeons across the island."
Other critics, including some in Obama's own party, have dismissed the president's approach as naive and dangerous.
"I understand the desire to make this his legacy issue, but there is still a fundamental issue of freedom and democracy at stake," Democratic Senator Robert Menendez said.
Obama's visit is "about more than U.S. politics or business opportunities on the island," said Richard Feinberg, an expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. "It's a bold bet that presidential diplomacy can secure a new normal in U.S.-Cuba relations after over five decades of hostilities, embargoes and gridlock."
Given the longstanding feuds between our two countries, however, it will take longer than a year or two to unwind the accumulated distrust and build support for this new normalcy, Feinberg said.
Eyeing the region
Harold Trinkunas, a senior fellow at the Brookings, said that normalization of relations with Cuba is about moving, among other things, a "stumbling block" to better Washington's relations with Latin America.
Political isolation and trade embargo enforced by the United States have caused great damage to Cuba and its people. As for the rest of the hemisphere, their dissatisfactions toward the United States have also grown.
Over the past decades, many leaders of Latin American countries have expressed opposition to the U.S. policy towards Cuba and viewed the embargo as an irritant in relations with Washington, as well as a symbol of American imperialism.
In addition, U.S. relations with several Latin American countries remain testy, and the Obama administration has imposed tough sanctions on Venezuela over alleged human rights violations and public corruption.
After visiting Cuba, Obama left on Tuesday afternoon for Argentina to meet with its new President Mauricio Macri. Nearly two decades have passed since a U.S. president made a bilaterally focused visit to Argentina, according to the White House.
Trinkunas noted that while Obama's visit to Cuba is certainly momentous and has already drawn a good deal of attention, his visit to Argentina and meetings with Macri are also momentous for a very different reason.
"Rapprochement with Argentina offers the prospect of rebuilding a mature working relationship with a country that was once one of the most important U.S. partners in the hemisphere," Trinkunas said.
Obama's trip to Argentina also comes at a critical moment of political change in South America, where a commodity bust and domestic policy failures have produced growing voter dissatisfaction, causing many countries to turn from the left toward the center.
Obama's visit to Argentina, Trinkunas added, is a welcome example of the United States leaning forward to take advantage of new opportunities to build better relations in the region rather than reacting to events.