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Does Obama-Castro Handshake Signify Shifting Relations?


When President Obama eulogized Nelson Mandela yesterday in South Africa, he noted the late South Africa president's ability to reconcile with enemies. Just before speaking those words, the American president shook hands with the leader of Cuba.


It's been more than 50 years since the United States broke off diplomatic ties with Communist Cuba. President Obama made some moves early in his first term to loosen tensions a bit, easing some economic embargoes and travel access. All that though may have been dwarfed by the symbolism of yesterday's simple handshake with President Raul Castro.

MONTAGNE: To get a sense of how important that moment for U.S.-Cuban relations, our colleague David Greene spoke to one former foreign policy advisor to the president on Latin America affairs


Dan Restrepo, welcome to the program. Thanks for coming on.

DAN RESTREPO: Great to be here.

GREENE: So the White House is suggesting that this handshake was not preplanned. Do you believe that?

RESTREPO: I think at a certain level, yes, but at another level, no. And here's what I mean by that. I think they obviously knew Raul Castro was going to be seated near the president because all of the speakers at the funeral were seated near one another. So in that sense, I don't think anybody got on a phone and said, let's make sure these two meet and shake hands.

At the same time, I think they could have, as the United States as done for more than 50 years now, found a way to avoid them shaking hands, had that been the order of the day. So I think this is easy to read too much into this handshake, but it's also, I think, easy to underplay it at some level.

GREENE: Take me into the conversations that you might have had with the president when you were his advisor? I mean, would this have been carefully orchestrated? Would you have said, Mr. President, you're going to be there and Castro is going to be there, you know, do this, don't do this?

RESTREPO: I was never in a situation where he was going to be in the same building with Raul Castro so that specific hypothetical is a tough one. But there's certainly times and events where you do sit down and talk amongst yourselves as advisors and perhaps even with the president as to who is going to be in the room, if there are any complicated figures in the room, how you want to deal with that.

At the end of the day, the bias, I think, is towards doing the polite thing, which is not avoiding somebody, but I doubt this was not discussed at some level before it happened.

GREENE: Does this somehow create an opportunity that wasn't there before this handshake took place?

RESTREPO: I don't think so and I think that's where it's easy to read too much into this handshake. There are real obstacles in the way of a change in the U.S./Cuba relationship, not the least of which is the continued attention of Alan Gross, a USAID contractor who's been imprisoned in Cuba now, going on four plus years.

GREENE: Which has been a real point of contention and remains a real point of contention. This handshake doesn't do away with that. It doesn't make it easier to get around that issue or through that issue. So at some level, a handshake is a handshake. I don't necessarily think it's a harbinger of a profound change in a 50-year relationship, but you do have President Obama having said that we need to be more creative about how we move forward in the relationship.

Can you tell me more about the obstacles that stand in the way? I mean, there are some who say, you know, why can't the Obama administration just, you know, Alan Gross and his imprisonment aside, begin to open things up?

RESTREPO: The basic premise of President Obama's approach to Cuba has been that the Cuban people should get to decide Cuba's future. Certainly not the U.S. government and not the Castro brothers. And unfortunately and sadly, Raul Castro has shown no indication of going along with that part of what change would mean in Cuba.

And then, there are very practical limitations to U.S. policy changes and how much a president can change, even a president who wants to change the embargo and other economic sanctions. A lot of that has been written into law.

GREENE: So Congress would have to make some changes and that...

RESTREPO: Congress would have to make some changes and that would require finding 218 votes in the House of Representative and 60 in the United States Senate. And you have folks who have very strong views on this who do not support any sort of opening and do not support any sort of change to U.S. policy, who want to stick with the policy of the last 50 years in the hopes that it will bring about a change.

And so you'd have to be convincing them and their colleagues in Congress if you wanted to fundamentally reorder the U.S./Cuba relationship.

GREENE: Dan, thanks so much for talking to us about this. We appreciate the time.

RESTREPO: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Dan Restrepo is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former foreign policy advisor to President Obama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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