Havana, Dec. 10 (Reuters): For sure it’s just what Mandela would have wanted, but does it amount to more than that?
The historic handshake between President Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro at the memorial for Nelson Mandela today was greeted on the streets of Cuba with surprise and hopes of improved relations.
However, according to a White House aide aboard Air Force One today, the handshake was a spontaneous gesture of greeting and went no further than pleasantries. “Nothing was planned in terms of the President’s role other than his remarks,” deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters travelling with Obama. “He really didn’t do more than exchange greetings with those leaders on his way to speak, it wasn’t a substantive discussion.”
Reaction was muted in Miami, where Cuban exiles have had a hard time accepting Mandela’s respect for Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Castro’s smile as Obama moved to shake his hand on the way to speak at the ceremony was seen by many Cubans as a signal of reconciliation, after more than a half-century of bitter ideological and political differences between the two countries whose shores are separated by only 144km.
“I never imagined such a thing could happen,” said Yesniel Soto, a 25-year-old government worker. “I see it as something that has begun to change, a change we are all hoping for,” Soto said this morning on her way to work in Havana.
The two Presidents’ civil behaviour towards one another was just the latest sign of a change of tone in the usually hostile rhetoric between the two governments.
Officials on both sides have spoken of a new gravity and pragmatism in their dealings with one another. And last month in Miami, Obama recognised for the first time Castro’s efforts to reform the Soviet-style economy, adding that US policy, which includes long-standing economic sanctions, was outdated.
“Perhaps the American and Cuban Presidents grasp, with this handshake, that the work they have to do together is far easier than South Africa’s struggle against apartheid,” said Julia Sweig, director for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Cuban state-run television broadcast today’s pressing of the flesh without commentary, simply as part of the footage of Castro’s speech at the tribute in South Africa.