What to Make of the Cuba Handshake

For as much as the media made of the handshake between President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, it's not nearly as juicy as other aspects of the U.S.-Cuba relationship.

The handshake itself is small potatoes. President Obama was right not to have snubbed a handshake at a memorial for Nelson Mandela, which would have turned into an even bigger story.

The reality is that there are much more important developments in the U.S.-Cuba relationship, and strong potential for principled engagement to further benefit the Cuban people and America's national interest.

As for the current situation, David Adams of Reuters reports that there appears to be a new climate of pragmatism in the bilateral relationship on issues ranging from granting asylum to Edward Snowden to resuming direct mail service. In Bali last week, I watched as new World Trade Organization Director-General Roberto Azevedo deftly helped Cuba and the United States work out a compromise in a business-like manner to smooth passage of a major trade pact, which was characterized by less-caustic rhetoric and without the kind of posturing than has historically been associated with U.S.-Cuba interactions.

To the extent that a business-like atmosphere can persist between the two countries, there are other areas where principled U.S. engagement can achieve real results. In particular, further changes to U.S. policy could help support the kinds of entrepreneurs and small businesses that are emerging in Cuba. Beyond pursuing discrete bilateral talks on issues like mail service and emergency response, further relaxing licensing requirements for travel to Cuba could enable more Americans to support entrepreneurs there. The administration could get even more creative, licensing internet platforms and financial service and shipping providers to offer Cuban entrepreneurs an opportunity to market and sell their products to U.S. consumers.

While Congress has enacted laws that limit the ability to get rid of the embargo in its entirety, the president has significant leeway under his licensing authority to get creative to support the Cuban people.

Last month, in cooperation with the Center for Democracy in the Americas, the National Foreign Trade Council hosted several Cuban entrepreneurs, including the owner of a family-owned restaurant and the owners of Nostalgicar, a Havana-based service that rents out classic Chevys to visitors. Both of these businesses would benefit tremendously from the increased flows of Americans that could result from more purposeful trips to Cuba, and there are many others that would be empowered by the kind of access to the global digital marketplace that the United States could enable.