Handwringing over a handshake

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.


President Obama and President Raúl Castro shake hands at Mandela memorial

President Obama and President Castro joined other heads of state and world leaders in Johannesburg this Tuesday to attend the memorial service held for Nelson Mandela. As he ascended to the stage, President Obama stopped to greet and shake the hand of President Castro in the first public greeting by a sitting U.S. President toward a Cuban President since then-Presidents Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro shook hands at a UN summit in 2000.

In remarks following the memorial, President Castro said that he did not find the handshake to be out of the norm, saying, “We’re civilized people.” President Obama’s National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, Ben Rhodes, similarly declined to read further into the handshake, but reiterated President Obama’s “willingness to pursue different paths” when dealing with Cuba.

President Castro later paid his respects to Nelson Mandela and met with South African President, Jacob Zuma, who thanked President Castro for Cuba’s friendship and years of support.

Reactions to what was titled the “handshake heard around the world” ranged from optimistic, to outraged, to skeptical, to downright humorous.

Click here to support the Latin America Working Group’s action appeal, thanking President Obama for extending his hand to President Castro.

Cuba to reinstate temporarily consular services in U.S.

Cuba will reinstate consular services in the U.S. at its Interests Section in Washington, D.C. and at the Permanent Mission to the United Nation in New York until February 2014, reports the Associated Press. M&T Bank, the New York-based bank that handles accounts for Cuba’s diplomatic missions, has extended its processing services to Cuba until March 1, 2014. The bank will only accept deposits through February 17, and on March 1 the bank will permanently close Cuba’s accounts.

M&T informed Cuba in July 2013 that it was planning to end services for foreign missions. Cuba suspended its consular services in the U.S. indefinitely last month after it was unable to find another bank to handle its account. The U.S. State Department has stated it will try to help Cuba to help find a bank to take over its accounts. According to Reuters, an estimated 350,000 Cuban-Americans seek visas to travel to Cuba each year, as well as 100,000 Americans traveling with people-to-people programs.  Consular services for these travelers is essential.

In a press release, the Cuban Interests Section states:

“The Cuban Interests Section in Washington continues its efforts to find a new bank to handle its bank accounts and, to the extent that this is achieved, it would be able to provide consular services on a regular basis.

“The Cuban Interests Section regrets any inconvenience the suspension of consular services last November 26 may have caused Cuban and American citizens and will provide timely information on future developments regarding this matter.”

Albor Ruiz wrote in the New York Daily News about the effects of the termination of consular services on a Cuban-American family who, until the recent resumption, was facing a major travel dilemma “just in time for Christmas, when hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans go back to the island to spend the holidays.”

Scottish bank to pay $33.12 million to OFAC for violation of embargo

The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) has agreed to pay a $33.12 million fine levied by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) as part of a larger settlement in connection with financial transactions that violated U.S. sanctions against Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Burma, reports Cuba Standard. Adam Szubin, OFAC’s director, stated, “This action demonstrates our continuing efforts to aggressively enforce U.S. sanctions laws against Iran and other sanctioned parties.”

The bank allegedly completed 24 wire transfers totaling $290,000 involving Cuba between 2005 and 2009. In a statement on their website, RBS claims it “has cooperated fully with the US Authorities and acknowledges and deeply regrets these failings,” and has “committed almost £300 million (since 2010) to strengthen the bank’s control environment on sanctions.”

Recently, OFAC also levied multi-million dollar fines on a travel subsidiary of American Express and an Italian banking group for transactions partially related to Cuba business.

U.S. Department of State offers funds for democracy and human rights programs in Cuba

The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) at the U.S. Department of State is seeking funding proposals for democracy and human rights programs in Cuba, according to a DRL program statement. Interested organizations can submit up to two statements of interests (SOI) with each addressing at least one of the following themes:

  • Advocating for Rule of Law and Human Rights
  • Facilitating Free Expression
  • Facilitating Free Flow of Information

The DRL’s total program funding capacity is 5 million dollars and individual organizations may receive between $500,000 and $1.5 million dollars.

This funding opportunity through the State Department comes on the heels of USAID’s revelation that a previous round of proposals for programs on the island were sent over an unencrypted line and potentially seen by Cuban officials. Such so-called “democracy promotion” or regime change programs are illegal in Cuba, where it is forbidden to accept U.S. funds aimed at undermining the government.

Last week, Alan Gross, a former USAID subcontractor, marked the beginning of his fifth year in prison, after being convicted of violating Cuban law pursuing regime change activities.

Tampa International Airport announces 11th weekly flight to Cuba

Joe Lopano, Tampa International Airport CEO, and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14) announced a new weekly charter flight from Tampa to Havana in a news conference, reports Tampa Bay Times. The flight brings the tally of weekly flights from Tampa to the island to eleven.

At the press conference Castor stated:

“This is a godsend for the families across this community.… Families used to have to travel to Miami at great cost, at great inconvenience, to travel to see their loved ones. Now it’s as easy as going from West Tampa, a mile away, right here to the best airport in the country….This also highlights the fact that we’ve got to take another step in modernizing the relationship between the United States and Cuba…. We have got to move on from this Cold War policy that does not encourage greater engagement and dialogue. It is time now.”

Tampa International Airport started offering direct flights to Cuba in 2011, and nearly 100,000 passengers have made the trip. Flights from Tampa to Cuba service Havana as well as the cities of Santa Clara and Holguín.  Castor has been a champion of opening up travel to Cuba and a supporter of broader policy reforms.

Semester at Sea plans for longer Cuba visit next year

After a two-day visit to Havana, Les McCabe, President of the Semester at Sea study abroad program, announced that the floating university plans to return to Cuba next year for a 5-day visit, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. With 648 people on board, Semester At Sea’s fall 2013 program docked in Havana this week for the first time in 9 years, after receiving approval from the Office of Foreign Assets Control. McCabe stated that such interchanges are a way of improving relations between the United States and Cuba, reports Prensa Latina.


Russia to forgive $29 billion of Cuba’s debt

Russian and Cuban diplomats agreed to sign a deal that would write off 90% of Cuba’s $32 billion debt to the Soviet Union, reports Reuters. Under the agreement, Cuba will pay Russia $3.2 billion over a 10-year period in return for Russia forgiving the remainder of the debt. The deal must still be approved by Russia’s lower house of parliament. According to Reuters, the two nations are still negotiating how Cuba’s $320 million per-year payment will be made.

Russia’s government agreed with Cuba – as a part of this recent deal –to work toward resolving Cuba’s debt to the Paris Club, a loose group of creditor governments which includes Russia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the U.S., the U.K., and others.

In an effort to restructure its debts, much of which is in default, Cuba has recently reached agreements with other countries such as Bulgaria and Mexico, which have written off large portions of Cuba’s debt. Cuba’s government also negotiated the restructuring of its debt with China three years ago, and last year resolved a trade dispute with Japanese commercial creditors.

Popular Cuban beach gets new direct flights from Europe this season

Swedish airline Novair, along with Apollo, its tour operator sister, will begin direct flights from Stockholm to the popular beach town of Varadero beginning December 6th, reports Cuba Standard. Companies from other countries such as Denmark, Poland, and Russia previously began flights to Varadero this winter.

Cuba and Honduras ratify maritime agreement

Chancellor Mireya Agüero Corrales and Sergio Oliva, Cuban Embassy official, ratified a maritime treaty between Honduras and Cuba this week, reports the Maritime Executive. The original agreement was signed in August 2012. Now ratified, the cooperation agreement will go into effect, laying out cooperation procedures for matters of mutual maritime interest, such as emergencies, research, and waterways regulation.


Cubans mark Human Rights Day with protests and counter-protests

On December 10th, International Human Rights Day, which marked the 65th anniversary of the adoption of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, demonstrations were held both by dissidents and by government supporters who gathered for counter-protests, reports Reuters. Some 20 members of the Ladies in White were detained upon arrival to a busy intersection, according to the report. Dissident groups claimed to have information about more than 150 arbitrary detentions on that day, all of which have been freed, reports the Miami Herald.

The U.S. State Department’s released a statement deploring the “crackdown.” Representatives Mario Díaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Joe García, and Albio Sires sent a letter urging Secretary Kerry to bar the musical group Arnaldo y su Talismán from entering the United States because of their alleged participation in “repugnant acts of repression against pro-democracy activists” on December 10th.

For Spanish readers, the magazine Espacio Laical of Havana’s Archdiocese recently published a discussion titled “Cuba: Towards a Redimensioning of Human Rights,” featuring comments by Roberto Veiga, Rafael Hernández, Julio César Guanche, Monseñor Carlos Manuel Céspedes and Arturo López-Levy. The discussants explore diverse perspectives of human rights that exist on the island, and analyze how it will figure into the changes currently underway in Cuba.

State gas company to sell at market prices

A subsidiary of state gas company CubaPetróleo (Cupet) will reduce state subsidies for bottled liquid cooking gas and sell at market prices in Havana and Santiago, reports Cuba Standard. The reforms were first enacted as a pilot project on the Isle of Youth in early 2013 and are expected to be gradually instituted in other provinces. According to Cupet officials, it was necessary to raise prices given that Cuba imports 30% of its liquid gas.

Cuba hosted first professional boxing match since 1961

Cuba hosted its first professional boxing match in 52 years last Friday, reports Xinhua. Cuba and Russia faced off in Havana as a part of the World Boxing Series. This is the first professional boxing match to take place on the island since then-President Fidel Castro outlawed professional sports leagues in 1961. Cuba’s government passed reforms in September to allow its athletes, coaches, and sports specialists to sign contracts abroad and compete in foreign leagues. Earlier this month, Cuba’s Baseball Federation was granted the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control’s approval to participate in the next Caribbean Baseball Series for the first time in decades.

Cuban Jewish leaders celebrate Hanukkah with Alan Gross

Adela Dworin and David Prinstein, two Cuban Jewish community leaders, met with imprisoned former USAID contractor Alan Gross on the last day of Hanukkah last week, reports the Associated Press. Gross and his visitors celebrated the holiday by lighting candles, saying prayers, and eating latkes and other traditional food. The two-hour meeting came two days after the fourth anniversary of Gross’ imprisonment. Gross and his visitors also discussed the letter he sent to President Obama last week. Their temple, Beth Shalom, released a statement about the visit which described Gross as being “in better spirits, more physically recovered.” Dworin and Prinstein have met with Gross on previous Jewish holidays as well.

Around the Region

Venezuela’s Socialist Party wins most votes in municipal elections; Sec. Kerry reaches out

Over the weekend, Venezuelans went to the polls to elect 335 mayors and 2,435 municipal council members, reports Reuters. The elections were the country’s first since Nicolás Maduro and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) narrowly defeated opponent Henrique Capriles of the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) in April’s presidential elections.

With nearly all polling stations reporting, Tibisay Lucena, president of the National Electoral Council, said that 49.2% of votes went to the PSUV while the MUD received 42.7%, reports Al Jazeera. The PSUV, party of late President Hugo Chávez, won more than 200 of the mayoral seats, though the MUD did perform well in some urban areas, maintaining the mayoralties of Caracas and Maracaibo, the country’s second-largest city.

Following the election, Secretary of State John Kerry stated in an interview that the U.S. is “ready and willing, and we are open to improving that relationship [with Venezuela],” reports the Miami Herald. He stated “Our hope is that the government will stop using our relationship as an excuse for not doing other things internally, and really opening up more to the people…We’ve been disappointed that the Maduro government has not been as ready to move with us and to engage, and that it seems to take more pleasure in perpetuating the sort of differences that we don’t think really exist.”

Maduro’s approval rate had suffered in the face of high inflation, shortages and other economic obstacles, which the president blamed largely on price-gouging by business owners, reports NPR. He received a boost after the National Assembly granted him power to rule by decree to fight corruption in November. Maduro has since passed a series of popular measures aimed at cutting prices, as well as threatening speculators with harsher consequences.

Honduras TSE declares Juan Orlando Hernández President-Elect of Honduras

Ruling National Party presidential candidate Juan Orlando Hernández has been declared President-Elect by the Honduran Supreme Electoral Tribunal, reports BBC. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued his congratulations to Hernández, stating: “Honduras’ newly elected leaders have committed to address the country’s most pressing challenges, including promoting fiscal stability and economic growth, combating poverty, and guaranteeing security, justice, and human rights for all Hondurans.”

Presidential candidate Xiomara Castro and her LIBRE party continue to argue that the elections were fraudulent, claiming “inconsistencies” in thousands of tally sheets. The TSE partially recounted those tally sheets, but did not recount actual votes. Additional analysis on the transparency of the vote and efforts to verify the tally counts can be found from the Honduras Culture and Politics Blog and CS Monitor. In light of the TSE rejection of LIBRE’s claims, LIBRE has not ruled out appealing to the country’s Supreme Court, reports El Heraldo.

Recommended Reading

Lift the Cuban Embargo, The New York Times Editorial Board

The NYT’s Editorial Board addresses the arguments of supporters of the embargo who won’t budge until “democracy returns to the island.” They refute that logic, writing: “The fact that the Castros remain firmly in charge in Havana more than a half-century after President John F. Kennedy instituted the restrictions against Cuba shows how effective that idea is.” They conclude that President Obama “should press Congress to end the embargo and overhaul policy toward Cuba.”

Obama and Castro Shake Hands and Bring Positivity to the State of U.S.-Cuba Relations, Latin America Working Group

LAWG’s Cuba team about the value of President Obama’s handshake with Raúl Castro: “Nelson Mandela was an outspoken man who believed in human rights and justice, but he sought to reach those goals through reconciliation and forgiveness rather than retribution. What Barack Obama and Raúl Castro did yesterday was the respectful thing to do; to do otherwise would have been an insult to Nelson Mandela’s memory.”

What to Make of the Cuba Handshake, Jake Colvin, Huffington Post

Jake Colvin writes about important developments in U.S.-Cuba policy that go beyond the Obama-Castro handshake. As an example, he cites the recent end of WTO negotiations in which Cuba and the United States reached a compromise.

Obama was right to shake hands with Raúl Castro, Paul Begala, CNN

Paul Begala juxtaposes Nelson Mandela’s ability to create “ripples of hope” with the ripple of hope for a healed U.S.-Cuba relationship.

Henderson: Leadership needed on Cuba issues, Jon Henderson, the Tampa Tribune

Jon Henderson writes that Tampa would greatly benefit from a more open U.S. policy toward Cuba. He cites U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who in 1963 wrote: “[Removing restrictions] is more consistent with our views of a free society and would contrast with such things as the Berlin Wall and Communist controls on such travel.”

Low-Hanging Fruit, Julia E. Sweig, HuffPost World

Sweig argues that “After 55 years of antagonism, the White House finally seems to understand that the one thing Washington wants from Cuba — some call it control, others call it liberal democracy — is not something that can be coerced from Havana with sanctions.” She argues that President Obama and John Kerry “stubbornly resist” the “low-hanging fruit” that is “a foreign policy victory with Cuba.” Her final question: “What, exactly, is the president waiting for?”

In Cuba’s Press, Streets and Living Rooms, Glimmers of Openness to Criticism, Victoria Burnett, the New York Times

Victoria Burnett writes about openings for debate and discussion in Cuba. She writes: “Glasnost it is not, say Cuban intellectuals and analysts. But glimpses of candor in the official news media and audacious criticism from people who, publicly at least, support the revolution suggest widening tolerance of a more frank, if circumscribed, discussion of the country’s problems.”

The U.S. Cuba Embargo: Making Diplomacy Impossible, Arturo Lopez Levy, Huffington Post

López Levy examines the roadblock that U.S. sanctions against Cuba continue to pose to diplomacy between the two nations. He highlights the contradiction stemming from Obama’s recent statements calling for an “updating” of U.S. policy toward Cuba on the one hand, and on the other, economic sanctions that led to the closure of the very offices that issue the visas for Obama’s “people-to-people” programs.

One Response to Handwringing over a handshake

  1. […] figure will be part of the negotiations, and will take into account Russia’s deal with Cuba in 2013 which wrote off 90% of Cuba’s $32 billion debt to the Soviet Union. The Club reportedly […]

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