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A chance encounter? Or something more?


U.S. President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raúl Castro greet one another at this week's memorial for Nelson Mandela.

It is difficult to know exactly what to make of U.S. President Barack Obama’s apparently cordial handshake with his Cuban counterpart Raúl Castro during a memorial service this week for Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

Was it planned? Was it deliberate? Was it merely common courtesy? Was it a gross affront to Castro’s adversaries in Florida? Or was it a sign, at long last, of an improvement in what must be among the world’s most weirdly dysfunctional relationships between neighbouring states?

A report in The New York Times stated pretty confidently that the encounter between the two men must have been anticipated by presidential aides on the American side who – the Times declared – “would have known in advance which world leaders would be at the podium when the president approached for his own remarks.”

Well, maybe.

It’s a fair bet that Obama’s organizers did not know in advance the identity of that very odd guy – named Thamsanqa Jantjie, it would turn out – who completely mishandled the signing translation for the deaf during the American leader’s eulogy, just as he botched the addresses delivered by a succession of other speakers.

Jantjie would later admit to seeing angels during the memorial and to having cognitive or behavioural problems that apparently have led to violence in the past.

If an individual of that unsettling description nonetheless managed to escape the attention of U.S. presidential security, then who knows whose hand Obama thought he was shaking when he greeted Fidel Castro’s slightly younger brother? Raúl might have been just about anybody, and so the gesture might very well have been meaningless.

Or maybe not.

More than 50 years have churned past since Fidel, Raúl, and Ché Guevara marched triumphantly into Havana after defeating the armed forces of Fulgencio Batista. Relations with Washington turned poisonous before long and have remained that way ever since.

But (a) the Cold War is over; (b) economic and social reforms in Cuba are finally gaining traction, albeit not fast enough for some; and (c) the Cuban exile community in southern Florida no longer collapses in collective and unanimous apoplexy at the merest suggestion of progress in relations between the two sides.

Except for an awkward problem with prisoners – the Cubans are holding an American named Alan Gross, while the Americans are detaining four Cubans – there is no longer a readily defensible reason for anyone on either side to oppose improved ties.

That doesn’t mean improved ties are imminent. Havana and Washington have demonstrated many times since the Cuban Revolution of 1959 that they are both highly adept at the art of missing opportunities.

In his salute to Nelson Mandela, however, Obama seemed to be saying that the future needn’t be a slave to the past – and that handshakes can have meaning.

“South Africa shows we can change,” he said. “We can choose to live in a world defined not by our differences but by our common hopes. We can choose a world defined not by conflict but by peace and justice and opportunity.”

Barack Obama, meet Raúl Castro.

Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star.




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