President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro and briefly exchanged words during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa, a rare interaction between the leaders of two countries that have been at odds for more than five decades.
The two greeted each other as Obama made his way through the seating area for dignitaries at the stadium in Johannesburg where the event was held. It was caught by the broadcast feed for the memorial service.
A short time later, Obama lauded Mandela’s example of reconciling with enemies as he criticized regimes that repress freedom.
“There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people,” Obama said, using Mandela’s clan name.
While he didn’t name those leaders, Cuba was a supporter of Mandela’s fight to end apartheid and Mandela in turn faulted U.S. isolation of countries including Cuba.
The U.S. and Cuba have had a tense relationship since the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro. The U.S. cut off diplomatic relations and President John F. Kennedy imposed an embargo on the island-nation in 1962.
“It’s a sign of how incredibly frozen in time and perverse our relations with Cuba have been that a mere handshake between two heads of state would generate this much interest,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Council of Americas, a business-oriented research organization in New York.
Clinton and Castro
It wasn’t the first interaction between a U.S. and Cuban leader since the revolution. Then-President Bill Clinton shook hands with Fidel Castro at the United Nations Millennium Summit of world leaders in New York in 2000.
Obama has taken steps to begin a thaw in relations. He used his executive powers to ease travel restrictions to Cuba in January 2011. He also cleared the way for allowing educational and church groups greater freedom to visit the communist country.
As recently as last month, he said policies imposed years ago may not make sense today.
“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,” the president said at a fundraiser in Miami on Nov. 8. “And we have to continue to update our policies.”
The U.S. embargo has faced international criticism. The United Nations voted in October to condemn the blockade for the 22nd time.
Critics say that the U.S. embargo, first imposed to protest Castro’s expropriation of U.S. assets, now keeps most U.S. companies out of a Cuban market that is attracting increasing amounts of foreign investment.
The moves taken by Obama allow higher education institutions to sponsor travel to Cuba for course work, and Americans can send as much as $500 every three months to Cuban citizens who aren’t part of the Castro administration or members of the Communist Party.
More recently, the Obama administration has engaged in discussions with the Cubans on migration and mail.
Still, there are hurdles to overcome between the U.S. and Cuba. The White House Dec. 3 reinforced its call on Cuba to release American subcontractor Alan Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development who was arrested by Cuban authorities on spy charges in 2009 and remains jailed.
“The Castro government has always wanted to be dealt with with respect, and this is a sign of extending a hand, of saying ‘We’ll treat you as a head of state,’” Sabatini said.
It doesn’t mean diplomatic relations will begin tomorrow given “a legacy of distrust” between the two nations, he said.
Cuba has made some advances, including liberalizing some sectors of its economy, releasing political prisoners but “the Allen Gross thing is a really huge stumbling block.”
“A little goodwill might go a long way,” he said.