Tim Rogers

HAVANA, Cuba— President Obama had a relatively unremarkable record on Latin America for the first half of his presidency, but he's really come on strong in the homestretch.

And this week the first gringo got his LatAm groove on like never before.

From burying the "last remnant of the Cold War" in Cuba, to effectively apologizing for the U.S.' role in Argentina's "dirty war", Obama has arguably done more in the past seven days to reshape the tone of U.S. political engagement with Latin America than any other president since Ronald Reagan. But whereas Reagan brought war and counterrevolution, Obama has brought peace, dialogue, and even a few latin dance steps.

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And these hips don't lie.

"I offer the Cuban people a saludo de paz," Obama said during his address to the Cuban people on Tuesday morning, straining the limits of his middle school Spanish. "…I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people."

The following day, Obama was 4,300 miles farther south in Argentina, talking about the importance of a "new beginning" between the two countries and promoting a "spirit of renewed friendship, partnership and engagement" that will outlast his presidency.

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But equally important to Obama's call for new beginnings is his profound reflections on the U.S.' past misadventures in Latin America. Because without facing the past, there's no hope of changing course moving forward.

"The United States, when it reflects on what happened here, has to reflect on its own past. When we're slow to speak out on human rights, which was the case here," Obama said Thursday at a war memorial to the thousands of Argentines who were killed or disappeared during that country's decade-long "dirty war," from the mid 1970s to 1983.

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Obama then announced his plans to declassify a new trove of military and intelligence records that document some of the abuses during that period.

The U.S. president said that the human rights atrocities that happened during the military junta in Argentina are "not unique" to that country, and "not confined to the past." The work of defending human rights and democracy is as important today as ever, he said.

"Each of us has a responsibility each and every day to make sure that wherever we see injustice, wherever we see rule of law flaunted, that we take responsibility to make this a better place for our children and grandchildren," the president said.

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The idea of doing things differently was also something that Obama stressed during his two-day stay in Cuba.

"What the United States was doing was not working," the president said of the U.S.' long- failed policy towards Cuba. "We have to have the courage to acknowledge that truth. A policy of isolation designed for the Cold War made little sense in the 21st century. The embargo was only hurting the Cuban people instead of helping them. And I've always believed in what Martin Luther King Jr. called 'the fierce urgency of now'—we should not fear change, we should embrace it."

Change this guy can believe in. A Cuban man wears a second-hand Obama t-shirt in Havana
Tim Rogers

Obama stressed that "the embargo is going to end," but added "when, I don't know."

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While the U.S. president didn't come to Latin America with all the answers, and his friendly gestures don't make up for the unknown tens of thousands of murders and disappearances resulting from the CIA-backed Operation Condor that terrorized South America in late '60s-'80s, the ongoing drug war in Latin America, and decades of nefarious U.S. meddling across the region, it does hopefully mark the beginning of a new day in U.S.-Latin American engagement.

A lot more apologies are still in order, but it's a start.

Obama's nuevos amigos tour also doesn't undo all the other mistakes that he has made in Latin America during his presidency. From failing his first LatAm test by mishandling the Honduran coup in 2009, to continuing to support failed a drug war, to breaking up Central Americans families with an untenable record on deportations, Obama's record is still mixed.

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But he does seem to have learned a few important lessons in his dealings with Latin America—namely, that the key to improving relations between the two halves of the Americas is a task best entrusted to el pueblo, rather than los politicos (especially when you consider some of the candidates vying for his job next year).

That's true in Cuba, it's true in Argentina, and it's true everywhere else in the hemisphere.

"The opportunities and possibilities for our two countries are not bound by just two leaders. They're bound by our fellow citizens, and the friendship, and the bonds, the common interests that we share and that we can promote. And if we do, that will be good for the world," Obama told the people of Argentina.

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He's right. ¡Así que adelante, compañero!