“I am Castro” and the handshake that still grips US

December 20, 2013

“I am Castro.”

Until yesterday, we knew what they did but not what was said.

According to Cuba’s former president, Fidel Castro, when the Presidents of the United States and Cuba shook hands in South Africa ten days ago, Raúl Castro spoke to Barack Obama in English:  “Mr. President, I am Castro.”

These were not the ten days that shook the world, so why is this event still gripping us?

We can appreciate the impact it had in Cuba. As we described last week, Cubans reacted strongly because they did not expect Mr. Obama to offer his Cuban counterpart the recognition and respect that his greeting conveyed.

After all, a handshake is the physical manifestation of equality; quite literally, no one has the “upper-hand.”

To Cubans – after being marginalized and snubbed by a virtual conga line of eleven American presidents – this gesture offered hope.

That hope may be optimistic, since the two presidents who have done this (Bill Clinton offered a similar greeting to Fidel Castro in 2000) shook with one hand but enforced the embargo, quite aggressively at times, with the other.

U.S. Presidents shake hands with foreign leaders all the time.  But, here in the U.S., Americans are paying close attention to this story.  Why?  Cuba interests us.  More Cubans live in our country than any place on Earth outside of the island itself. And yet, Cuba is a forbidden fruit.  Most Americans can’t travel there.  Most businesses can’t sell there.

Many Americans may not know the Helms-Burton law, which makes it impossible for a president to recognize Cuba unless it forms a transitional government that “does not include Fidel Castro or Raúl Castro.”

But that statute enshrines our isolation from Cuba into law – an isolation that can only end with an Act of Congress – an isolation that will continue when the Cuban government celebrates its 54th anniversary in power on January 1, 2014.

The law is not just a warmed-over Cold War anachronism, it locks us into a strategic error that really hurts U.S. interests.

If we ever hope to end the stalemate between our two governments, and begin a process that seeks to resolve the problems that divide us, the most meaningful agreement we can reach will be negotiated by the man who said “I am Castro,” as reported by his older brother.

No name in Cuba, no bureaucrat who succeeds them, will have the historic credibility to sign an agreement that the United States finds acceptable and make it stick.

If we do not talk now, because the hardliners who wrote Helms-Burton – or the hardliners of today – force us to wait for what some call a “biological solution,” until both Castros leave the scene, our government will be waiting for a favorable solution to this problem for a long, long time to come.

You will not be hearing from us again until January 10th.  We hope you enjoy our break with a happy celebration of your own.

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Handwringing over a handshake

December 13, 2013

At the exact time President Obama shook hands with President Raúl Castro at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, we were in Cuba – where word of the handshake circulated fast, and the reaction among Cubans was electric, even ecstatic.

The President’s domestic political opposition felt quite differently.

The six seconds Barack Obama spent grasping Raúl Castro’s hand infuriated them in sadly familiar ways.

The Washington Post called the handshake “an awkward footnote to his tribute in Soweto.” Capitol Hill Cubans sniffed, “We believe this encounter was unfortunate and untimely – albeit inconsequential.” Rep. Matt Salmon (AZ-5)said it was “an insult to the people of Cuba who are denied liberty and oppressed daily by the Cuban dictator.”  Not to be outdone, it reminded Senator John McCain that “Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), who found the Obama-Castro handshake “nauseating,” begged Secretary Kerry at a Congressional hearing, “Could you please tell the Cuban people living under that repressive regime that, a handshake notwithstanding, the US policy toward the cruel and sadistic Cuban dictatorship has not weakened.”

The rank opportunism of its fiercest critics seemed to knock the White House back on its heels.  An Administration official said “this wasn’t a pre-planned encounter.” An earnest White House spokesman downplayed its significance explaining “they didn’t have a robust, substantive conversation about policies, but rather exchanged some pleasantries as the President was making his way to the podium.” Secretary Kerry said Obama “didn’t choose who’s” at the Mandela ceremony.

Some reports spun the speech harder. The AFP said the speech contained a “clear swipe at states like Cuba.” Several pundits pointed to this sentence – “There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people” – saying those twenty-two words in Obama’s nineteen-hundred word address had been aimed squarely at Cuba’s government.

But, when Ben Rhodes, the president’s Deputy National Security Advisor, addressed the traveling White House press corps, he said “I don’t think his intent was to single out specific countries.”

There’s no reason to be defensive.  The White House should be beaming with pride.

As countless commentators have written, what passed between the two Presidents could have been modeled on Mandela himself.  Nelson Mandela didn’t wring his hands over shaking hands with F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid president.  He considered it essential to his goal of reconciliation for all of South Africa.  He was photographed doing so time and again.

Against the backdrop of history, the Obama-Castro handshake evoked a welcoming editorial reaction.

It caused the Kansas City Star to ask, “What if this greeting signaled another apparent micro-thaw in the half-century cold war with our island neighbor? Frankly, that would be good news. Small gestures add up. As time goes by, many Americans – and many everyday Cubans – are ready to get on with the future.” It led the New York Times to repeat its call to “Lift the Cuban Embargo.”

Most of all, the White House should be heartened by the reactions of the Cuban people.

Cubans who have lived their entire lives with the United States thumbing its nose at their country could not get over this small gesture of respect paid to their national leader by our national leader.

What made our visit to Cuba possible – President Obama’s people-to-people travel reforms – had been rolled-out by the White House two years earlier with a press release titled, “Reaching Out to the Cuban People.

This figure of political speech was vindicated by what we saw in Havana.

It was as if the president had reached past Raúl Castro and personally shaken the hands of each one of the Cuban citizens we talked to.  They were thrilled and empowered by what had transpired eight thousand miles away in South Africa.

Mandela’s life work continues, just like President Obama said:

“Mandela taught us the power of action, but he also taught us the power of ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those who you agree with, but also those who you don’t agree with.

“And finally, Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit. There is a word in South Africa – Ubuntu – a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.

“After this great liberator is laid to rest, and when we have returned to our cities and villages and rejoined our daily routines, let us search for his strength. Let us search for his largeness of spirit somewhere inside of ourselves.”

So large, they felt his spirit in Havana.

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Nelson Mandela, Cuba, and the Terror List

December 6, 2013

In a statement at the White House, President Obama paid tribute to Nelson Mandela who died Thursday at age 95:

“Today, he has gone home. And we have lost one of the most influential, courageous, and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth. He no longer belongs to us — he belongs to the ages.

“For now, let us pause and give thanks for the fact that Nelson Mandela lived — a man who took history in his hands, and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.”

Nelson Mandela earned these beautiful words and even greater accolades long before President Obama was elected. But, the President’s comments were noteworthy because they were a sharp departure from how Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement he represented had been regarded by U.S. foreign policy.

“Until five years ago,” as AFP reported this morning, “(Mr.) Mandela and other members of the ANC remained on the U.S. terror watch list because of their armed struggle against the apartheid regime.”

In what it considered to be Cold War battlefields, in places like South Africa and Angola, where the battles were actually being fought over colonization and racism, Washington drew a tough line. South Africa and its ally Cuba fell onto the other side. For decades, Mandela and his African National Congress were considered terrorists by the United States. This also worked to the convenience of the hardline anti-communist opponents of the Cuban government.

Beginning in the early 1980s, Cuba was put on the State Sponsors of Terror List; punished, in part, for its intervention in southern Africa. This has done enduring damage to Cuba’s economy, with the sting of sanctions still being felt every day by Cubans and by international businesses engaged in commercial transactions with their government.

At times, Washington’s Cold War preoccupation with Cuban troops in Angola led it in odd directions. One of President Reagan’s National Security Decision Directives, dated May 7, 1987, contemplated using U.S. information efforts “to undermine Cuba’s ability to deploy troops in Angola through specially focused radio programming broadcast to Cuba by Radio Martí,” which suggests that the National Security Council had no idea the signals were jammed and that no Cuban could be affected by propaganda they couldn’t hear.

Cuba’s alliances in southern Africa meant something entirely different to people like Nelson Mandela. He called Cuba’s decisive role in Angola “a victory for all of Africa.” In a speech Mandela delivered in Cuba not long after he emerged from his 27-year imprisonment, he said:

“We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defence of one of us.”

In the same speech he also said:

“We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of a vicious, imperialist-orchestrated campaign. We too want to control our own destiny.”

[You can see the gratitude he felt toward Cuba in this historical video when he implores Fidel Castro to visit South Africa.]

The same trip that brought Mandela to Cuba in 1991 also saw him come to the United States and brought him into contact with Americans who weren’t ready to canonize him.

An article published earlier this year, “When America Met Mandela,” relates a pointed exchange with Nightline Host Ted Koppel who challenged his right to meet with leaders of “rogue states” like Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, and Col. Gadhafi. “They support our struggle to the hilt,” Mandela told Koppel and proceeded to lecture him on gratitude and self-determination. “Any man who changes his principles according to whom he is dealing,” he told Koppel to applause from the audience, “that is not a man who can lead a nation.”

Those comments, according to the Miami Herald, “caused an official welcome planned for him to be rescinded,” and led five Cuban- American mayors to cancel their meeting with Mr. Mandela, sending a letter instead calling his comments “beyond reasonable comprehension.”

As he edged closer to the end of his life, cooler heads at least in Washington prevailed. In 2008, Congress passed, and President George W. Bush signed, legislation removing the African National Congress from the terrorist watch list.

You can see the bill here. Its evidence of how the United States finally came to view Mandela not as a terrorist but as a global leader of unparalleled moral standing.

Cuba was listed as a state sponsor of terror for reasons that included actions that Nelson Mandela believed led to his own freedom and the end of apartheid. The president could hardly offer a more fitting tribute than by removing Cuba from the terror list in Mandela’s memory and name.

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