Obama, Castro Shake Hands

On Tuesday, December 10, US President Barack Obama reached out for an historic handshake with Cuban President Raúl Castro as he was walking to the podium to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela at FNB stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa. The US withdrew diplomatic recognition of Cuba in 1961 and continues to impose an embargo.

On the Handshake….

Whether intended or not, Nelson Mandela is still bringing people together – even after his death. Irrespective of the handshake, Obama’s remarks  pointedly chastised “… leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”  The handshake came with finger-wagging.  That is a good balance.

 There will be a backlash to the handshake among certain members of the Cuban community in the United States, but Obama surely knew that would be a possibility. The fact that he chose to still go ahead and offer his hand to Castro is perhaps a telling sign that he may be willing to continue to implement small, incremental steps to engage with Cuba even if it comes with spending some political capital.

Peter Schechter, Director, Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center

On US-Cuba Relations…

Since the early 1960s, US policy toward Cuba has consisted largely of isolation. The Obama Administration has reversed many of the Bush-era restrictions and has lifted limits on family travel and remittances.  But the US-Cuba policy is an unfortunate failure.  The Castro’s are still there; a half century later.

Friendly Latin American presidents, foreign ministers and business leaders have implored President Obama to undo a policy which makes it difficult to stand beside America in the region.  Cuba has become the pebble in the US-Latin American shoe.  With Venezuela’s economy teetering, the Cuban authorities are surely anxious about the future of their economy. Like with Iran, there may be some mutual interests in exploring how to convert a handshake into a real policy.

Jason Marczak, Deputy Director, Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center

Related Experts: Jason Marczak and Peter Schechter