What appeared like a routine diplomatic exercise at FNB Stadium in Soweto, South Africa, Tuesday December 10,2013, is beginning to evoke an ecstatic debate in the United States, and before long in Cuba over the future relationship between the two countries. Mr. Barack Obama, president of America had on his way to read his tribute to the late Nelson Mandela, on whose account the world had gathered at the stadium, shaken hands with some world leaders in attendance. Among those who were on the president’s path was Mr Raul Castro, leader of the Socialist state of Cuba.
That gesture must be the most intimate encounter between leaders of the two countries for 50 years since Raul’s brother Fidel launched a communist revolution in Cuba. There had been a cold war between them , which refused to change even after the curtain fell on the leading former Union of Soviet Socialist Republic, USSR. Fidel Castro, before he took ill and transferred power to his brother, was an unrepentant foe of the United States, an attitude believed ton have created deep diplomatic rows between the two countries. Raul was considered to be even more of a hardliner.
But the handshake in Soweto has raised speculations about an expected gesture of a likely peace initiative that could address the age-long hostility between the countries. Obama has done that before by starting a peace process to negotiate with Hassan Rouhani of Iran on the vexed issue of nuclear weapons. This exercise has generated criticism from home and Israel, which sees itself at the receiving end of any truce by America with Iran.
However, the gesture may really not be because Obama wants to initiate a peace process yet. Had he ignored Castro that day he would have come under heavy criticism for not practicing what he preaches. The American president had duelled on the lessons the world should learn from Mandela, a respected apostle of social justice. He said, ” We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity.” It is also on record that as much as there was a cold relationship between US and Cuba, Mandela as president of South Africa did not hide the romance between his country and Cuba, to the discomfort of America. That must be Mandela’s way of appreciating friends in need. Cuba stood by the African National Congress, ANC in the fight against the apartheid government, giving military training to the militant arm of the party. Mr Mandela’s attitude also aligns with his large heartedness and the readiness to forgive past deeds. Obama may just have been a good disciple of Mandela.
On the other hand, he may have embraced Castro just for mere diplomatic niceties. For instance, in 2009 he had had a similar handshake with Hugo Chavez, who was then the socialist president of Venezuela. The Republicans back home roundly condemned that gesture, but it is not known that the Obama administration has made any effort to open a chapter of friendship with Venezuela. Will the Cuba case be different? The world is watching.