BRASILIA (Reuters) - Latin American leaders who for years have pressured the United States to drop its economic embargo against Cuba praised President Barack Obama for moving on Wednesday to restore diplomatic relations with its communist-run Cold War foe.
Regional leaders said the move and a U.S.-Cuban prisoner swap would further ease an ideological battle that has divided the Americas for decades, even spurring revolutions and dictatorships.
Venezuela's socialist government, Washington's leading adversary in Latin America, was quick to praise Obama.
"We have to recognize President Obama's bold and historic gesture. He has taken perhaps the most important step of his presidency," said President Nicolas Maduro, whose government has supported Cuba with generous supplies of cheap oil.
U.S. policy toward Cuba has soured its reputation across much of Latin America, especially in recent years as leftist leaders came to power. Many admired Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.
Two of those presidents, Brazil's Dilma Rousseff and Argentina's Cristina Fernandez, said their generation of "fighters for social justice" had thought they would never see diplomatic relations restored between Cuba and the United States.
Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), the regional forum where Cuba's seat has been empty since 1962, said Obama's decision removed a major irritant in Washington's relations with Latin America.
"This ends the attempt to isolate Cuba for so long. Cuba is undertaking a process of economic reforms that will, I hope, lead to political reforms," he said on Chilean television TVN.
He also called on the U.S. Congress to take another major step and abolish the trade embargo that Washington slapped on Cuba more than five decades ago after Castro seized power in a revolution.
Obama can take steps to weaken the embargo but he can't end it without the support of Congress, and he will face resistance.
Latin American governments had insisted that Cuba be allowed to attend the next OAS summit in Panama in April, meaning Obama had faced a choice of either agreeing to sit down at the same table as Cuban President Raul Castro or staying away.
That dilemma disappeared on Wednesday as both Obama and Castro said in separate televised addresses that they would resume diplomatic relations. They spoke by phone before the announcement and they will meet again in Panama.
Despite the widespread praise for Obama's move, Latin American countries are likely to continue pressuring Washington until it substantially eases or eliminates the trade embargo.
"We hope to see more than today's gestures, that the blockade against Cuba is definitely lifted and relations normalized for the good of the whole region," said Chile's foreign minister, Heraldo Munoz.
Editing by Kieran Murray