President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raúl Castro during the official memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium, Dec. 10, 2013, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Chip Somodevilla
It’s hard to get excited about a handshake. It is just a courteous gesture, after all.
But for Cubans, particularly many Afro-Cubans, such a gesture between their president and the black president of the superpower just 90 miles north of them fuels hopes for bigger changes.
One such change would be the ultimate lifting of a five-decade long economic embargo that has disproportionately ratcheted up more suffering among black Cubans, who receive far fewer remittance dollars than white Cubans and feel more of the brunt of shortages and hardships, as well as the increasing economic stratification that it abets.
“I knew what happened between Raúl and Obama because my assistant called me on the phone and told me,” said famed Afro-Cuban documentarian Gloria Rolando. . “He said, ‘Gloria! Gloria! Did you hear what happened?’
“That was the most important news that day ... people were calling me all day about it. We don’t always make comments about news events, but we did about that one.
“That meeting may be the window for the start of a new beginning for us.”
Gloria Rolando Tonya Weathersbee
Yet while Rolando and most Cubans aren’t naïve enough to believe that the handshake between Raúl Castro and President Obama at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service last week means the embargo will be lifted tomorrow, or that Obama will become the first serving U.S. president in more than 50 years to visit Cuba, many believe it still represents a goodwill gesture that is, in Obama’s case, being slowly backed by small changes.
Since the Obama administration has been in office, it has eased restrictions on visas for Cuba as well as people-to-people travel and cultural tours. The president has also allowed Cuban-Americans to send more remittances back to their relatives in Cuba.
“In the case of our country and the United States, Raúl has always said that he would put on the table things to negotiate,” said Odalys Lopez, a representative of the North American Division of the Cuban Institute for Friendship With the Peoples, an NGO that, among other things, facilitates international visits to Cuba and provides humanitarian aid.
Lopez said that changes that are being discussed, such as restoring direct postal service between the two countries, demonstrate that agreements between the countries—things that are often symbolized by a handshake—are ongoing.
“We’re in dialogue with the United States about many things, all the time,” Lopez said.
That’s why Lopez wasn’t all that surprised by the handshake between Obama. Neither was Michael Cobiella, chief of the publishing house of the Fernando Ortiz Foundation, which focuses on the study of Afro-Cubans and other ethnic cultures that comprise Cuban society.
“I’m a Cuban. I can never be surprised,” Cobiella said. “I think that we have never had anything against the U.S. people, even in the worse crises.
“There were some bad things said, some wrong things said, but we have never had anything against the U.S. people.”
And when a U.S. president steps up and shakes the hand of their president during the funeral of a leader like Mandela, whom the Cuban people loved, it’s a little tough not to hope.
“The best homage to Mandela was that handshake,” Rolando said. “Nelson Mandela believed in establishing dialogue with others ...
“In the history of humankind, there have been many beginnings to many positive things. Maybe this is one of those beginnings.”
Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist based in Jacksonville, Fla. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.