Earlier today, President Obama shook the hand of Cuban President Raúl Castro at a memorial service for late South African leader Nelson Mandela. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) welcomes this development, which is a modest but positive step toward improving relations with Cuba.
The handshake is indicative of a change in tone in U.S.-Cuban relations. In the past, U.S. officials—including Vice President Al Gore and President George W. Bush—have gone to great lengths to avoid even being in the same room as either of the Castros. The Obama administration has taken a number of steps in the right direction to improve its relationship with Cuba, including loosening restrictions on travel to the island, lifting the cap on remittances, and restarting talks on migration and other topics. The decision to not ignore Castro at Mandela’s memorial service is a natural extension of this approach.
That said, the significance of the handshake has been somewhat overblown for several reasons. First, the move is not unprecedented; then-President Bill Clinton shook hands with Fidel Castro in 2000. Clearly, a handshake does not mean that the president is looking to normalize relations immediately. Second, it was merely the decent thing to do. It’s appropriate that President Obama shook hands with Castro at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela, a man who stood for both struggle and reconciliation. Deliberately snubbing the Cuban leader would have been disrespectful to both Castro and Mandela’s legacy.
Nelson Mandela stood for moving on from old hatreds. He did not cease to criticize apartheid or the injustices of the past even as he called for forgiveness and reconciliation. Likewise, rapprochement with Cuba does not mean that the U.S. government will cease to disagree with the Cuban approach to a variety of issues, nor that it will cease to voice its concerns. But after over fifty years of frayed relations, it’s time for the Obama administration to build on its previous reforms to U.S.-Cuba policy and move on.