Latin America and Europe have hailed efforts by the US and Cuba to restore diplomatic relations, after decades of tensions along with an economic embargo.

Regional leaders said Wednesday's announcements by US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro of a thaw in ties and a US-Cuban prisoner swap would further ease an ideological battle that has divided the Americas for decades.

"We have to recognise President Obama's bold and historic gesture. He has taken perhaps the most important step of his presidency," said President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, Washington's leading adversary in Latin America,

Brazil's President 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 US.

Meanwhile, the European Union hailed the announcement as a "historical turning point."

"Today another Wall has started to fall," said EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini, adding that the 28-member bloc hoped ultimately to be able to "expand relations with all parts of Cuban society".

Spain's Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo described the the move as "of great significance" and seized the opportunity to urge Cuba to improve its rights record.

And as it emerged that the Vatican had played a central role in clinching a deal, Pope Francis sent "warm congratulations" to the former arch-foes for overcoming "the difficulties which have marked their recent history".

Havana celebrations

In the Cuban capital, Havana, crowds took to the streets to celebrate the release of three Cubans jailed in the US and the prospects of a lifted trade embargo.

"I have goosebumps all over," 52-year-old cafeteria worker Ernesto Perez told the AFP news agency. "It's very important news that will change all our lives."

Exiled Cubans in Miami protested against the rapprochement, calling Obama a 'coward' [AP]

But in the US city of Miami - home to the largest community of Cuban Americans - reaction was mixed. 

Many younger Cuban-Americans, born on US soil, welcomed the news. But among the exiled older generation, there was a feeling of betrayal.  

"I feel disappointment completely in President Obama. In this moment for me Obama is a coward because he is doing business with the Castro regime," Miguel Saabdra, who joined dozens of others protesting in a downtown area known as "Little Havana", told Al Jazeera.

Ever since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 generations of Cubans have sought a better life in the US.

Thousands risked their lives to make the dangerous crossing and view a change in policy with scorn.

Republican politicians also condemned Obama's move.

"The White House has conceded everything and gained little. They gained no commitment from Cuba on freedom of press, freedom of elections. No commitment was made to establish political parties or begin transition to democracy" said Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies