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Can a handshake warm US-Cuba ties?

Some found Barack Obama's handshake with Raul Castro fraught with meaning, but others claim it lacks substance.

Last updated: 20 Dec 2013 15:09
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The US has had a trade embargo on Cuba since the 1960s [AP]

Hello. Goodbye. Thank you. It's a deal. A handshake can mean many things, but when President Barack Obama greeted Cuban President Raul Castro at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa, the handshake reverberated around the world, leading critics and optimists alike to wonder if a new age of US-Cuba relations had arrived.

The idea wasn't entirely unfounded. Speaking at a fundraiser for the Cuban-American National Foundation in November, Obama said the current US policy toward Cuba "doesn't make sense".

"It's a losing battle trying to keep up this policy that hasn't produced anything tangible in a half a century. It's just a matter of time before the policy changes," said Colonel Morris Davis, a Howard Law professor and Air Force veteran who served as the chief prosecutor at the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba from 2005-2007. "I viewed the handshake in a positive light that maybe it's the beginning of the thaw that has been delayed for far too long."

But, he added, "I'm an optimist".

Jordan Valdez, a senior advisor within the Obama administration, is a career foreign policy analyst. Speaking unofficially from her perspective as a first-generation Cuban-American, Valdez said she's not reading too much into the greeting between Obama and Castro. "To me, that handshake signaled nothing more than a gesture of respect from one person to another."

Trade embargo

The United States broke diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1961 after a number of confrontations with then-President Fidel Castro, including a US-led attempt to overthrow the Cuban government, and a Cuban initiative to nationalise foreign-owned properties and companies.

As a result, the United States has pursued an aggressive economic and political embargo against the nation since 1962. Starting on 1982, the United States has included it on a list of "state sponsors of terrorism," a distinction Cuba shares with only three other countries: Syria, Sudan, and Iran.  The Helms-Burton Act in 1996 strengthened the embargo.   In 1999, then-President Bill Clinton prohibited foreign subsidiaries of US companies to trade with Cuba, and in 2000, limited exceptions were made for humanitarian items. The United Nations has called for an end to the US embargo against Cuba for twenty-two consecutive years.

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Valdez said she has seen some improvement in relations between the two countries in the ease in which she's now able to visit her relatives in Cuba.

"Previously, you had to surrender your spouse's passport if you were a Cuban wanting to travel. The idea was that you wouldn't defect without your husband or your wife. Elderly people were allowed to travel, because the assumption was that their entire life was on the island, and they would come back."

But relaxed travel restrictions were threatened in late November when New York State- based M&T Bank halted operations of Cuban missions in the US, effectively ceasing the issuance of visas; and halting travel between the US and Cuba, something neither country wanted.  Cuba blamed the move on US sanctions. 

Some banks are leery about dealing with Cuba's US accounts given the country's status as "state sponsors of terrorism", and the embargo. Other banks face hefty fines from the US Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for missteps in regulations involving transactions with Cuba.

Banking services were reinstated until February 17, but the Cuban Special Interests Section in Washington, DC, which acts as the country's embassy in the US (under Swiss diplomatic protection) is now scrambling to locate another bank to handle their consular deposits, a difficult task under the current economic embargo. A State Department official has said the Obama administration is actively working to resolve the issue.

The banking issue is just one example of the difficulty in deciphering with any certainty the mixed messages the United States has presented on the global stage in regard to its attitude toward Cuba.

Human rights

In no area are the lines blurred more than in the case of Cuba's alleged human rights violations, which President Obama has repeatedly denounced. Alan Gross, a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) worker arrested in 2009, has spent the past four years in a Cuban prison. On December 3, the anniversary of his detainment, Gross pleaded with President Obama not to abandon him. Members of the US Senate called for an "immediate, unconditional release." 

There is no better case than the Cuban Five to show the hypocritical nature of the United State's so called war against terrorism

-Alicia Jrapko, US coordinator for the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban 5

In response, the Director General for the United States in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Cuba, Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, said in a statement: "The Cuban government reiterates its readiness to immediately establish a dialogue with the United States government to find a solution to the case of Mr. Gross on a reciprocal basis, and which addresses the humanitarian concerns of Cuba relating to the case of the four Cuban antiterrorist fighters in prison in the United States." 

The four, part of a group known colloquially as the Cuban 5, are Cuban intelligence officers arrested in Miami in 1998 for alleged acts of espionage against the US government.

"There is no better case than the Cuban Five to show the hypocritical nature of the United State's so called war against terrorism," said Alicia Jrapko, the US coordinator for the International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban 5. "These were five young men who came to the US unarmed to prevent terrorist attacks organised in Southern Florida against their people. "

Indeed, it's difficult to hold the moral high ground against imprisoning individuals without cause in Cuba when the United States is itself guilty of the act. The Guantanamo Bay detention center, located on the US Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, is a controversial holding ground for prisoners in the US as part of the so-called "war on terror".

Davis said, "We protest the circumstances in which Gross is being held in Cuba, but on the other end of the aisle, we've got 160 people we've been keeping there (in Guantanamo Bay) for 12 years. 80 of the people being held have been cleared of all charges, but haven't been released."

"Human rights is one of those things we throw up when it's convenient, and something that we ignore when it's to our advantage to look away," Davis said.

For Valdez, the issue of human rights hits closer to home. She recalls a time when, visiting cousins, she was harassed by police who demanded her papers, and says such occurrences happen frequently. "Is there some level of hypocrisy around the US's stance on Cuba's human rights? There always is. For me, when I think about it, the human rights abuses that are happening in Cuba are happening to members of my family. I don't have family in Guantanamo."

Davis, however, thinks relations can be normalised with Cuba. "At various points in our history, countries that we've vehemently hated that are now our allies. Or countries that were our friends that now became our enemies," Davis said. "Our attention span tends to be fickle at times."

For Jrapko, the steps to cordial relations between the US and Cuba are clear. "…the lifting of the travel ban to Cuba, the lifting of the blockade, the removal of Cuba from the State Department list of countries that sponsor terrorism, a closing of Guantanamo and returning it to Cuba and the freedom of the 'Cuban 5.'"

Valdez, more measured in her approach, envisions a time when she'll be able to easily exchange cards, gifts, phone calls and even emails or Facebook messages with relatives. But, she is cautious that any progress made under the current US administration could be undermined by the next, perhaps more fickle, one. It's a concern she can't shake easily.

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Al Jazeera
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