Obama and Castro Shake Hands and Bring Positivity to the State of U.S.-Cuba Relations

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Author: Mavis Anderson

Yesterday at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa a small but significant gesture took place between President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro: they shook hands. While this normally wouldn’t have been such a noteworthy action of civility, it has highlighted the need to address the current state of broken relations between the United States and Cuba. The Latin America Working Group (LAWG) supports this development and encourages further steps by both countries to move us along the path towards engagement and normalization.

The handshake in and of itself is reflective of the small steps that have been taken by both countries that may lead to repairing the bilateral relationship: on the U.S. side—removing restrictions on family visits to Cuba, changing regulations to increase U.S. travel in general to the island, removing the cap on remittances to Cuban citizens, re-starting talks on a number of issues; on the Cuban side—reversing some policies on the island that have been restrictive for Cuban citizens, removing the restriction on travel outside the island, updating its economic model, offering repeatedly to talk with the United States with no topic off-limits. These actions, while they may be small in light of the long and conflictive history of U.S.-Cuba relations, still speak to the new type of relationship that is possible. Though in the past, U.S. Presidents have avoided being placed in a situation of a face-to-face with either of the Castros, we have to believe that President Obama and his advisors were aware that President Castro would be on the same dais with him and that this situation would present itself. The President chose to shake hands, to smile, and to exchange some words with the Cuban president. LAWG welcomes this gesture, while being fully aware that U.S. policy towards Cuba will not change overnight.

Nelson Mandela was an outspoken man who believed in human rights and justice, but he sought to reach those goals through reconciliation and forgiveness rather than retribution. What Barack Obama and Raúl Castro did yesterday was the respectful thing to do; to do otherwise would have been an insult to Nelson Mandela’s memory.

The opportunity exists for U.S. citizens and leaders from around the world to thank President Obama for the handshake and call upon him to extend the handshake to dialogue. As Nelson Mandela said in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Let’s move in this direction, following the lead of a handshake.