People on both sides of the debate are already making a bit too big a deal about this, but President Obama stopped briefly to shake hands with Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandel’s funeral this morning. It’s already getting the full Drudge siren treatment, and Breitbart’s John Nolte calls it “more than a little unsettling.” CNN's Chris Cuomo, meanwhile, described it on CNN's live broadcast as "about something bigger ... about forgiveness and reconciliation."
America’s 50-year-old Cuba embargo is clearly badly in need of a rethink. But I’d also be cautious about casting this as a significant sign of rapprochement between the two countries.
While Obama has expressed interest in updating U.S. policy toward Cuba, moves toward normalizing relations between the two countries have been slow. Recent talks over immigration issues and re-establishing mail service, for instance, broke down over Cuba’s arrest of U.S. contractor Alan Gross, though there have been some smaller moves on travel restrictions. In any event, part of Obama’s speech appeared directly aimed at Castro, as well as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who was also present:
"There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba's legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality," he said, referring to Mandela by his clan name.
"There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba's struggle for freedom but do not tolerate dissent from their own people," he said.
If South Africa is the textbook example of when political sanctions can be effective, Cuba is the textbook example of when they aren’t. The handshake could be a sign of bigger things to come, but keep in mind that Bill Clinton also shook hands with the leader of Cuba, then Fidel Castro, in 2000. Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake.