SAO PAULO — It’s the image that became the symbol of Nelson Mandela’s memorial in Soweto: the handshake between U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro. And it's only fitting that this is the image that remains.
The United States and Cuba have been living in open animosity since the Cold War. From the end of the 1960s, Washington has been imposing a commercial and financial embargo on the island that turned Communist after the movement led by Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
But Obama’s gesture was not unprecedented. Before him, other U.S. presidents have met with leaders of hostile countries without those confabs leading to bilateral relations. In the gallery of these historical meetings there are, for example, pictures of Harry Truman greeting Joseph Stalin at the 1945 Potsdam Conference, and others of Bill Clinton shaking Fidel Castro’s hand at the United Nations in 2000.
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Winston Churchill, Truman, and Stalin at Potsdam Conference (Truman Library)
U.S. officials have said that the encounter between Obama and Raul Castro hadn’t been planned. Even so, a handshake between leaders of enemy nations always arouses curiosity and inevitably sparks speculation.
The recent rapprochement between the United States and Iran reinforces the idea that a similar path could be found with Cuba. But what really foments speculation that the American embargo could be lifted is the very anachronism of these sanctions.
According to the Cuban Democracy Act that the U.S. Congress passed in 1993, the blockade is to be maintained until the island agrees on democratic reforms. Today, however, the embargo actually slows down this process more than it encourages it.
There are also emphatic signs that the Castro influence may be reaching its end. With the extinction of the Soviet bloc, the island lost its geopolitical importance and has since been suffering from an excruciating economic crisis. Increasingly criticized, both inside and outside the country, the dictatorship has had no choice but to make compromise after compromise.
Maintaining the embargo only punishes the Cuban population and supplies the regime with easy anti-American propaganda.
The presence of the United States in a process of economic reconstruction would be more productive. A gesture of reconciliation from the American government would probably be met with internal obstacles, but these also seem minor when compared to the opportunities such a move would create.
All would gain if the handshake between Obama and Castro — in the same spirit of reconciliation Nelson Mandela will be remembered for — represented a real first step on the road to a normalized relationship between the two countries.