Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Obama-Castro Handshake

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Author’s Note: A year ago, I wrote a blog about a handshake between U.S. President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba. While the gesture was one of courtesy and little else, I expressed the hope that the relationship of isolation and embargo, started in 1960, would be replaced by one of engagement. Today, both countries restored full diplomatic relations. One of the remaining relics of the Cold War era is now a matter of the past. This is an historic day .

Pope Francis, who did some significant behind-the-scenes diplomacy , was quick to express his support. Canada is also said to have played a significant role, and this should not be a surprise. Canada has maintained a relationship with Cuba despite the U.S. embargo.

There remain some outstanding issues to be resolved. There may have been a humanitarian component behind the release of Alan Gross, the imprisoned American aid worker, but this was, above all, a political event and diplomacy at its best.The embargo remains with some easing, but the future is most promising. This will be part of Obama’s legacy and marks the beginning of a new dynamic in Latin America.

I invite you to re-read my blog post on December 16, 2013. It is still relevant.

During the course of the first leg of the Mandela funeral celebrations last week, one event made news around the world—U.S. President Barack Obama shaking hands with Cuban President Raul Castro.  Speculation immediately surfaced about whether it was a planned event, and whether it meant an eventual new beginning for Cuban‒U.S. relations. 

Judging from the reactions of both presidents’ spokespeople, it was a circumstantial meeting.  To not shake hands would have been more significant.

Back in the spring of 2012, both Canada and the United States could not agree with their Latin American and Caribbean partners on a communiqué about the outcome of the sixth Summit of the Americas—in part because both the Canadian and American leaders opposed the formal inclusion of Cuba at the next summit.  Last week’s event between Obama and Castro should not be interpreted as a change of heart.

Yet, basking in the accolades and homages to Nelson Mandela and his spirit, one cannot escape the thought that Mandela himself would have approved of the gesture as a first step to an eventual normalization of relations between these two antagonists. After all, the circumstances that led to the U.S. embargo of Cuba and the eventual missile showdown in 1962 have drastically changed.  The Cold War is over, the Internet revolution has changed the world, communism has become a marginal ideology, forcing remaining regimes to adjust to market forces, and finally, democracy has made enormous strides in Latin America and the Caribbean.  Even in die-hard Cuban-American circles (found especially in southern Florida), we are seeing some transformation.  Cuban-American youth voted in greater numbers for Obama and the Democrats in the last elections.

The real issue revolves around Cuba in a post-Castro context.  While there have been some small steps towards liberalization in recent years, it is clear that Castro’s Cuba still has a poor human rights record.  Rewarding tyranny cannot be the pathway to acceptance and full inclusion at the next Summit of the Americas, scheduled in 2015. 

However, isolationism is never the best policy.  If Obama’s gesture is seen as a step towards a potential thawing of relations, Castro must respond with a more symbolic gesture of his own and some concrete measures to end human rights violations.  Supporters of Cuba’s inclusion must make this clear to Castro.

Cuba is 90 miles from U.S. shores, and the U.S. is becoming a nation where Hispanic influence is growing.  The thorny issue of immigration reform and the road to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the U.S.  is bound to be a major issue in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential cycle.

The younger generation of Cuban-Americans have more in common with their Hispanic brethren in America than those settling scores with the Castro brothers and their brutal imposition of Marxist Communism that began in the early 1960s.

For Obama, it is an opportunity in the latter stages of his presidency to do something historic and to move away from a relic of another era, ushering in a new beginning for the U.S.’ relationship with its partners in the Americas.


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags: Barack Obama, Raul Castro, U.S.-Cuba relations
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