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Will A Handshake Lead To Better U.S.-Cuba Relations?

In this image from TV, President Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at the memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg on Tuesday.
In this image from TV, President Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at the memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg on Tuesday.

In everyday life, a handshake is rather ordinary. But when President Obama shook hands Tuesday with Cuban leader Raul Castro at a memorial service for the late South African President Nelson Mandela, this was how it was described:

-- "a simple gesture that signaled possible thawing between the leaders of the two Cold War foes"

-- "an unprecedented gesture"

-- "perhaps a deliberate seizing of the moment to edge forward the prospect of a thaw in relations ... after more than half a century of hostility"

-- "a symbolic gesture that came after decades of estranged U.S.-Cuba relations"

Despite Tuesday's handshake, Obama told mourners in Johannesburg that "too many who claim solidarity with Madiba's [Mandela's tribe name] struggle for freedom ... do not tolerate dissent from their own people." It was an apparent reference to Castro and leaders of other nondemocratic nations gathered at the service.


Cuba and the U.S. have been at loggerheads since Fidel Castro, Raul's brother, overthrew the regime of Fulgencio Batista in 1959. The U.S. imposed sanctions on Fidel Castro's communist regime in 1960, sanctions that have stayed in place since then.

Many Cubans who fled the island for Florida after the revolution are opposed to any easing of the embargo. The measures have hurt the Cuban economy but have done little to weaken the regime. Fidel Castro stepped down from the presidency in 2008 at the age of 82, handing the reins of power to his brother and comrade-in-arms Raul Castro, who was 77 at the time.

Obama's encounter with Raul Castro on Tuesday isn't the first time a sitting U.S. president has shaken hands with a Cuban leader. President Clinton did just that with Fidel Castro in September 2000 at the U.N. General Assembly, a move that at the time was described as "just a cordial conversation." That handshake came a month before the trade sanctions were amended to allow the sale of U.S. agricultural products to Cuba.


The U.S. policy is to isolate Cuba diplomatically and to keep the embargo in place. The two countries do not maintain diplomatic ties but have representation through the Swiss Embassy in Havana and Washington, D.C., respectively.

The U.S. regards Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism and has criticized the Castro regime's human rights record. The U.S. is also concerned about the case of Alan Gross, an American contractor who is in a Cuban jail, accused of espionage. Cuba says it will only release Gross if the U.S. releases some Cubans accused of spying in the U.S.

But trade is another issue, as the Council on Foreign Relations notes in this primer:

"In 2008, U.S. companies exported roughly $710 million worth of food and agricultural products to the island nation, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. However, that number fell by about 50 percent in 2012. Total agricultural exports since 2001 reached $3.5 billion as of February 2012. Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas have all brokered agricultural deals with Cuba in recent years."

A Recent Thaw

The George W. Bush administration had tightened the embargo and increased travel restrictions, but Obama eased those soon after assuming office in 2009. And as CFR notes, "He went further in 2011 to undo many of the restrictions imposed by the Bush administration, thus allowing U.S. citizens to send remittances to non-family members in Cuba and to travel to Cuba for educational or religious purposes."

Cuba, too, is changing, as this story on NPR's Morning Edition by Nick Miroff notes. Raul Castro has introduced modest changes to a country cossetted for decades by a socialist economic model. Obama has acknowledged these changes and called for a renewed approach to the nation.

"We have to be creative," he said last month in Miami. "And we have to be thoughtful. And we have to continue to update our policies. Keep in mind that when 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."

Castro isn't the only world leader opposed to the U.S. to whom Obama has reached out. In 2009, he shook hands with then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez; more recently, he spoke by telephone to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

The Future

So, will the handshake change anything between the two Cold War-era enemies?

Carl Meacham of the Center for Strategic and International Studies calls it a "symbolic gesture [that] could signal ... maybe the beginning of a more substantive set of policies."

But Jorge Duany, who directs the Cuba Research Institute at Florida International University, says none of the issues separating the U.S. and Cuba will be resolved by a handshake alone. "But at least it's a healthy sign of what the future may bring to the two countries and to some kind of re-establishment of relations between the two governments," he says.

Both Meacham and Duany's comments can be heard in Ari Shapiro's story Tuesday on NPR's All Things Considered.

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Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.