US President Barack Obama has long been interested in establishing better relations with Communist Cuba, but it was never a priority.  Until now, it appears.

Almost two years ago,  Latin American and Caribbean leaders rallied against the United States at the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.

They told President Obama in no uncertain terms there would be no 7th Summit of the Americas (the highest level regional forum that includes the US and Canada) if Cuba was not included at the summit.

Cuba was expelled from the Organization of American States in 1962 at the height of the Cold War and ever since Washington has refused to allow it to rejoin the 35 nation “Family of the Americas”.

Time was running out: the summit is scheduled for April in Panama City, Panama and a few weeks ago the Panama’s Foreign Ministry sent out the invitation for Cuba to take part.

Could Washington afford to look like a sore loser and snub all of its neighbours because of a tiny Communist Caribbean Island that no longer poses any threat to the United States?  

Clearly not. 

That in part explains why President Obama was working behind the scenes to obtain what he calls “ a significant gesture” from Havana that could justify sitting at the same Summit table with Raul Castro.  

The release of  American contractor Alan Gross, imprisoned in Cuba five years ago for espionage, was just that.  

Starting a dialogue 

In May, President Obama asked his left wing Uruguayan counterpart, Jose Mujica, to pass on a letter to President Castro, offering to start a “dialogue” on diverse issues, notably Washington’s long standing economic embargo against the Communist island.  Sources close to Mujica tell me “he helped give the final push” to get the ball rolling.  

In exchange, Washington has agreed to Cuba’s long standing demand for the release of  the remaining 3 spies  imprisoned in the US since 1998, including Gerardo Gonzalez.  He had been sentenced to two life sentences for his alleged role in the downing of two small aircraft manned by Miami based opponents of the regime.

The trial in Florida was widely regarded as un unfair and the evidence shaky at best.  Back in 2001 President Fidel Castro told me that they were not spying against the US government, rather on the anti-Castro groups that were attempting to overthrow his government. For years, millions of Cubans were brought out onto the streets demanding the release of the Cuban Five, as they were called. 

Now the upcoming Summit of the Americas will be a historic event that will  mark the beginning of the end of  the Cold War between the two nations.

Former US President Richard Nixon is remembered for opening up relations with China.  Obama is trying to make Cuba part of his presidential legacy.