Barack Obama and Raul Castro: More Than a Handshake?

Nelson Mandela, even after his death, promoted peace and reconciliation among nations and civility between leaders. His funeral has brought about the refreshing image of Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama, of Cuba and the U.S., greeting each other.

The struggle against apartheid was a cause that gathered many around the world. The African-American university student Barack Obama and the thousands of Cuban soldiers who went to Angola were among them. Mandela inspired them and thanked them all for their contribution. Barack Obama and Raul Castro were on the same side of the South African conflict, Mandela's side. They had common adversaries like Senator Jesse Helms, author of the insignia law of the embargo against Cuba, and the loudest voice in the racist and reactionary resistance against American repudiation of apartheid.

A gesture says more than a thousand words. Obama behaved in accord with the dignity and protocol that comes with leading a democratic superpower. The handshake would not have been extraordinary without past deviations by the U.S. from all diplomatic norms in its policy towards Cuba. In Mexico in 2002, then-president George W. Bush put President Vicente Fox on the ropes by demanding that Mexico arrange the Monterrey summit in a way that he did not have to greet Fidel Castro. Fox asked Fidel Castro to speak, eat and leave before Bush arrived. When Fidel revealed their phone conversation, Fox's decision to genuflect toward the North caused a crisis in the relations between Havana and Mexico City.

Nothing like that could happen in South Africa. Cuba was a fundamental ally of Mandela and the ANC, and President Obama is different from President Bush. As a Senator, Obama criticized the embargo as an irrational policy with no positive results that harm only innocent Cubans. As president, he recently stated in Miami that U.S. policy towards Cuba has to be updated, because the world and the island have changed.

This is not the first time that the presidents of Cuba and the U.S. have shaken hands. Back in 2000, during the 55th anniversary of the United Nations in New York, Fidel Castro and Bill Clinton, whom Mandela later convinced to buy a bottle of Cuban rum that the Cuban leader had given to him, shook hands. There are two differences between this encounter and that one. Then, Clinton was at the end of his presidential term having authorized relatively modest people-to-people contacts between the two countries. Now, Obama is in the first year of his second term. The expanded volume of people-to-people licensed travel to Cuba is increasingly challenging the Cold War logic that has driven the bilateral relationship. Cuban Americans, the same constituency that allegedly support the travel ban, are traveling to the island in record numbers.

Obama has made some symbolic statements that without being substantive create expectations about his planned presidential legacy. While the president is not able to end the embargo with the push of a button, he can further reform the policy and use his voice to highlight the contradictions of this Cold War anachronism. He has finally acknowledged that important changes are occurring in Cuba. Secretary of State Kerry affirmed in the OAS that American travelers are the "best ambassadors of our values and interests," a formulation that contradicts the travel prohibition that the U.S. maintains. Now, with aplomb and without drama he greeted Raul Castro.

Engagement: The best policy for creating a political space for dissent
At Mandela's memorial service, President Obama called upon governments to tolerate dissent as part of realizing Madiba's legacy. This is consistent with the administration's general commitment to international human rights. The U.S. doesn't apologize for defending its democratic values. The call for opening space to dissent coincides with the human rights norms of the international community.

The problem is that in the Cuban case, the U.S. policy doesn't promote a political space for dissent. Washington's policy is obsessed with imposing a regime change selecting its favorite opposition members in line with the requirements of the Helms-Burton law. Such approach clashes with Cubans' strong nationalist feelings. This heavy-handed interventionist distraction discredits grounded democratic demands. It is an obstacle to the development of a loyal opposition focused on Cuba's current realities, not old dreams of a counterrevolutionary restoration.

Between Cuba and the U.S., there are difficult issues to negotiate. No handshake can solve the case of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross imprisoned in Cuba. Gross was not a spy but to call him a hostage of the Cuban government is a stretch. He was not a tourist kidnapped by Hezbollah on a sightseeing trip to be traded for Israeli war prisoners. He was judged in Cuba because of his participation in a risky U.S. government covert operation to provide Cubans with wireless access to the Internet from secretly installed satellite communication equipment in synagogues.

Civility was not a forte of these USAID programs designed under the Bush administration. The USAID never requested the informed consent of the leaders of the Cuban synagogues despite that they could have been sentenced to years in prison for cooperating with a program whose funds were appropriated by the U.S. Congress under a regime change rubric. According to a Development Alternatives Initiatives confidential document about a meeting with USAID personnel in control of the program, in which Alan Gross took part, Bush's USAID recommended him to study Cuba through a rabid rightwing blog by the name of Babalu. Today Babalu blog repudiates president Obama as a "Marxist Tyrant" in the tradition of "Mao, Stalin and Fidel Castro."

Mr. Gross didn't speak Spanish. He loves Cuban music but this is hardly a qualifier for sending him on a mission he reported to his employer as increasingly dangerous. After knowing about American cyberwar capabilities, the Cuban government made clear that it considered its capacity to monitor Internet connections with the outside world an issue of national security and sovereignty.

Mr. Gross' detention is considered arbitrary by a U.N. Group that analyzed his case. According to this panel of experts his trial was politically motivated and lacked the international minimal standards of a fair and just legal process. This is hardly a surprise in a communist country and highlights the need for a diplomatic solution to his case. Interestingly, the same U.N. body has also considered "arbitrary" the detention of five Cuban agents, four of which remain in prison in the U.S. According to these experts, the political environment surrounding the trial of the five in Miami, including the involvement of Cuban-American journalists paid by the U.S. government and covering the Cuba issue in the local newspapers, made getting a fair and just trial very difficult there.

The U.S. government argues that the two cases are not equivalent because Gross was not a spy. This is true since Gross didn't seek any secret information. The pro-embargo groups are demanding the Obama administration to accept only a solution based on Mr. Gross' unconditional release. This is their way to entangled Washington in a situation that will keep Gross in prison as an obstacle against Obama's position in favor of dialogue with U.S. adversaries. Ironically, if the U.S. government had sent on Gross' mission someone working for an intelligence agency, he could have been back long time ago. While this Talmudic spy-not-spy-discussion takes place in Washington, Mr. Gross remains a prisoner and no political space for dissent opens in Havana as result of U.S. regime change policy.

In contrast, a détente and open engagement policy would have more credibility in the promotion of human rights. Article 2 of the Constitution gives the president great flexibility in what he can do towards Cuba. The president can create more general licenses for people to people travel to Cuba. The State Department can take Cuba off its list of terrorism sponsoring nations where Cuba doesn't belong. Nothing would create more political space for dissent in Havana than removing the notion of Cuba as a fortress under siege. Democracy is a process in which the expansion of one freedom leads to greater demands of better governance. It is organic when it happens within; it is unlikely as an outcome imported from without.

The president should reassert his foreign policy prerogatives to respond in a flexible and timely manner to reform moves on the Cuban side. In response to the recent rise of Cuba's non-state sector, the president should allow investment and trade with it. The president can ease the conditions for the restricted but legal sale of agricultural products and allow American companies to export agricultural equipment to Cuba.

A simple handshake doesn't have to be exaggerated, but it matters. Civility isn't sufficient but it is a necessary and praiseworthy conduct in international affairs. It is worth remembering that international politics is made not only of states but also of many societal actors. In Cuba and all over the world many people looked at the handshake with hope. It might be a first step to negotiation, but it has already created a healthy debate in Washington and Havana.