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Obama shakes hands with Cuba’s Raul Castro

APTOPIX South Africa Mandela Memorial

US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at the FNB Stadium in Soweto, South Africa, in the rain for a memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela, Tuesday Dec. 10, 2013. The handshake between the leaders of the two Cold War enemies came during a ceremony that's focused on Mandela's legacy of reconciliation. Hundreds of foreign dignitaries and world heads of states gather Tuesday with thousands of South African people to celebrate the life, and mark the death, of Nelson Mandela who has became a global symbol of reconciliation. (AP Photo) SOUTH AFRICA OUT

By
From page A1 | December 11, 2013 | 8 Comments

HAVANA — 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.

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.”

Not everyone was so happy about it.

“Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake, but when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant,” said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American congresswoman from Florida who until January 2013 was chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

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.

It came as Obama greeted a line of world leaders on his way to the podium for a speech at the memorial.

Obama also had a cheek-kiss for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. The two have clashed over reports the National Security Agency monitored her communications, leading the Brazilian leader to shelve a state trip to the U.S. earlier this year.

In another potentially uneasy exchange, Obama briefly greeted Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose refusal to sign a security agreement with the U.S. before year’s end has irritated the administration.

Obama adviser Ben Rhodes said the handshakes were not planned in advance and didn’t involve any substantive discussion. “The president didn’t see this as a venue to do business,” he told reporters traveling back to Washington aboard Air Force One.

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.”

As president, Obama has lifted limits on how often Cuban-Americans can visit family back on the island, and how much they can send home in remittances. He also reinstated “people-to-people” cultural exchange tours to Cuba. The result is more than a half-million U.S. visitors to the island each year.

Cultural, sports and academic exchanges have become commonplace. Just Monday, a huge ship docked in Havana carrying hundreds of Semester at Sea students under a U.S. government license.

But Obama has also argued that Washington’s 51-year economic embargo on Cuba should remain in force, and his administration has imposed tens of millions of dollars in fines on international companies for violating the sanctions.

Cuba’s imprisonment in 2009 of U.S. government development subcontractor Alan Gross put relations back in a deep freeze. Gross remains jailed, but this year Washington decided it would no longer let the case stand in the way on areas of common interest.

The U.S. and Cuba have held multiple rounds of talks on restoring direct mail service and immigration issues, with more scheduled for January. Diplomats on both sides report cordial relations and call each other at home. The two nations’ coast guards reportedly work well together on things like drug interdiction.

Perhaps most surprising, each government has dodged developments that could easily have poisoned the waters.

When several Latin American presidents critical of Washington were practically tripping over each other to offer asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, Raul Castro was notably silent.

And when Cuban weapons were found hidden underneath a shipment of sugar on a boat bound for North Korea, in possible violation of U.N. sanctions, Washington made clear it would not turn it into a bilateral issue.

Cuban state television broadcast images of Tuesday’s historic handshake, as well as a snippet of Obama’s speech. It did not, however, include his implicit criticism of governments like Havana’s. “There are too many who claim solidarity with (Mandela’s) struggle for freedom but do not tolerate dissent from their own people,” Obama said.

Obama made waves in 2009 when he shook hands with the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a strident critic of the United States, at the Summit of the Americas. That ultimately did little to improve relations, and Venezuela and the United States are without ambassadors in each other’s capitals.

Washington and Havana are still far apart on many issues, among them Gross, four Cuban agents jailed in the United States, the embargo, the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo and Cuba’s record on human rights and democracy.

But some in Havana were optimistic the handshake may point to a future Cuba-U.S. reboot.

“As a Cuban I’m shocked,” said Ana Lidia Aguila, a 42-year-old employee of the City Historian’s Office. “I hope that relations grow closer.”

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

LEAVE A COMMENT

Discussion | 8 comments

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  • PatriotDecember 11, 2013 - 4:46 am

    Hypocrite after his speech he shakes the hand of the tyrant that is preventing freedom of speech and liberties in his country. Oh yeah, this is exactly what Obama would like in the US also. Fox would be done and he could lock up all of us that disagree with him. Build a lot more prisons Barrack!

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • rlw895December 11, 2013 - 6:21 am

    What should the president have done at a tribute to Mandela in Mandela's home country? Pointedly NOT shaken hands with some leaders?

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • CD BrooksDecember 11, 2013 - 6:35 am

    Every single thing this president does is met with scrutiny. There are some unhappy people having nothing better to do than hope anything they perceive as negative sticks to this man. Nothing new, no more to see here.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • CD BrooksDecember 11, 2013 - 6:45 am

    Str, I think it is time for Cuba and the US to forge a new relationship and move forward. Wondering what your take might be on the issue?

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Of course the powers that be want Cuba in the foldDecember 11, 2013 - 7:12 am

    Quoted from somewhere else......The Rothschild family is slowly but surely having their Central banks established in every country of this world, giving them incredible amount of wealth and power............................................................. In the year of 2000 there were seven countries without a Rothschild owned Central Bank:........... Afghanistan Iraq Sudan Libya Cuba North Korea Iran..................................... It is not a coincidence that these country, which are listed above were and are still being under attack by the western media, since one of the main reasons these countries have been under attack in the first place is because they do not have a Rothschild owned Central Bank yet. The first step in having a Central Bank establish in a country is to get them to accept an outrageous loans, which puts the country in debt of the Central Bank and under the control of the Rothschilds. If the country does not accept the loan, the leader of this particular country will be assassinated and a Rothschild aligned leader will be put into the position, and if the assassination does not work, the country will be invaded and have a Central Bank established with force all under the name of terrorism.................................................. Rothschild owned Central Bank:....... Central banks are illegally created private banks that are owned by the Rothschild banking family. The family has been around for more than 230 years and has slithered its way into each country on this planet, threatened every world leader and their governments and cabinets with physical and economic death and destruction, and then emplaced their own people in these central banks to control and manage each country’s pocketbook. Worse, the Rothschilds also control the machinations of each government at the macro level, not concerning themselves with the daily vicissitudes of our individual personal lives. Except when we get too far out of line.................................. The only countries left in 2003 without a Central Bank owned by the Rothschild Family were: Sudan Libya Cuba North Korea Iran....................... The Attacks of September 11th were an inside job to invade Afghanistan and Iraq to then establish a Central Bank in those countries............... The only countries left in 2011 without a Central Bank owned by the Rothschild Family are: Cuba North Korea Iran..................... After the instigated protests and riots in the Arab countries the Rothschild finally paved their way into establishing Central Banks, and getting rid of many leaders, which put them into more power.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Cuban Auto Racing / Carrera de Motos y Autos Cuba 1950December 11, 2013 - 7:32 am

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHsyO1f2wbM

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • CD BrooksDecember 11, 2013 - 8:01 am

    Oh well, so much for an unobstructed personal point of view...

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Oh Well.......Mr. Brooks !.......You leave me BreathlessDecember 11, 2013 - 8:08 am

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xj5rDeV6V7M

    Reply | Report abusive comment
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