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President Obama shakes hands with Chavez and Ortega and makes overtures to Cuba.

At the recent Organization of American States summit in Trinidad and Tobago, President Barack Obama used the occasion for a brief but cordial exchange with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The two shook hands and smiled each other, according to eyewitnesses, though they reportedly didn’t say much. Still, however, that the two even shook hands represented a major about-face from the chilly relations the Bush administration had with the fiery far-left Venezuelan president.

Chavez was quoted as saying that Obama “is an intelligent man, compared to the previous president.”

Chavez’s never-ending efforts to remain in power and cozy relationship with Fidel Castro made him a frequent target of criticism by President George W. Bush. Ties between Washington and Caracas were strained last year and both had recalled their ambassadors. A few weeks ago Chavez hinted that he has a new ambassador ready to assume the post in Washington as soon as ties are mended.

President Obama, who just one week earlier, lifted travel restrictions for Cuban Americans to visit Cuba, also used the occasion to say that he wants closer ties with the island country although he reiterated demands by previous presidents that Cuban first institute major political reforms and release all political prisoners before the nearly 50-year-old economic embargo can be lifted. He expressed willingness to sit down with the Cuban President Raul Castro to iron all differences.

President Obama also shook hands with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, another Latin American leader with historically frosty relations with Washington. Ortega held a firm grip on power in Nicaragua in the 1980’s, getting himself re-elected over and over again and earning himself a spot on President Ronald Reagan’s hit list. Ortega finally stepped aside for free elections in the 1990’s but was re-elected in 2006.

Many other Latin American leaders applauded Obama for his overtures towards Chavez and Castro but most still called for an immediate lifting of the economic embargo on Cuba, calling it an obstacle to full unity in the Americas.

Forty-seven years after the embargo was slapped on Cuba it has failed to accomplish any of its objectives. Fidel Castro finally left office last year but only because of ailing health, not because of the embargo, outlasting 10 U.S. presidents. Upon leaving office he put his younger brother, Raul, in charge, guaranteeing that the U.S. will still have to deal with a Castro ruling Cuba. The only thing the embargo has accomplished for the U.S. is a high level of mistrust among Latin Americans who see the U.S. as having imperialistic designs on them. It has caused some Latin American countries such as Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia to seek warmer ties with Iran and North Korea.

Just when things are getting worse with Iran and North Korea, Obama’s reaching out to Chavez and Castro couldn’t have come at a better time. Both Cuba and Venezuela would make invaluable allies in getting through to the hard-headed regimes of Iran and North Korea and convincing them to comply with U.N. resolutions.

Additionally, in an era when European countries are binding closer together and are relying less on the U.S. for leadership it’s time that we focused on developing closer ties with our own neighborhood. Besides, how can we be so committed to trying to solve problems in other regions of the world while having less than satisfactory relations with so many of our neighbors?