Why Obama, Castro handshake matters

By Drum Digital
11 December 2013

It was the briefest of moments, just seconds, two presidents shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries amid a gaggle of world leaders together to honor the late Nelson Mandela.

It would hardly have been noteworthy, except the men locking hands in Johannesburg were Barack Obama and Raul Castro, whose nations have been mired in Cold War antagonism for more than five decades.

Obama and Castro's encounter was the first of its kind between sitting U.S. and Cuban presidents since Bill Clinton and Fidel shook hands at the U.N. in 2000.

By shaking Castro's hand, Obama sent a message of openness that echoes a speech he gave at a Democratic fundraiser in Miami last month.

"We have to continue to update our policies," he said then. "Keep in mind that when (Fidel) Castro came to power, I was just born. So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn't make sense."

A single, cordial gesture is unlikely to wash away bad blood dating back to the Eisenhower administration. But in a year that has seen both sides take small steps at improving the relationship, the handshake stoked talk of further rapprochement.

"On the one hand you shouldn't make too much of this. Relations between Cuba and the United States are not changing tomorrow because they shook hands," said Geoff Thale, a Cuba analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a U.S.-based think tank.

He contrasted the moment to a 2002 development summit where then-Mexican President Vicente Fox asked Fidel Castro to leave to avoid having him in the same room as U.S. President George W. Bush.

"What's really striking here is the contrast," Thale said. "It's a modestly hopeful sign, and it builds on the small steps that they're taking."

- SAPA-AP

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