Can a simple handshake in South Africa someday lead to freedom for a Maryland man who’s been rotting in a Cuban jail for the last four years?
On Tuesday morning, President Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro while both leaders were attending the funeral of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. The gesture, which the White House says was unplanned, sparked a firestorm of protest in Miami among anti-Castro exiles — as well as hope in Havana that 50 years of bitterness on both sides of the Florida Straits may be coming to an end.
“It is nauseating,” said Cuban-born Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a supporter of Israel and Jewish causes who chairs the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa. “He shook the hand of a murderer, a thug, and those are bloody hands.”
Cuba’s state-run TV network broadcast the brief encounter without commentary as part of its coverage of Castro’s attendance at the Johannesburg event.
Rabbi Elhanan “Sunny” Schnitzer, president of the Bethesda-based Cuba-America Jewish Mission, says he sees nothing more than symbolism in Obama’s expression of respect to Castro, 82, who flashed a broad smile in response.
“I think it’s two people being polite,” Schnitzer told WJW, cautioning those hoping for an improvement in bilateral relations not to read too much into it. “With things the way they are in Congress, unless there are changes in the stated positions of a couple of key Cuban-American [lawmakers], I don’t see any real possibility for change. They would oppose any attempt to link the Cuban Four to Alan Gross, and those people wield tremendous power in districts that Democrats need in the next election.”
Maurico Claver-Carone, a Washington lawyer who runs Cuba Democracy Advocates and supports U.S. sanctions against the communist regime, told Reuters the greeting was “unfortunate, but unavoidable and inconsequential.”
Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Security Archive’s Cuba documentation project, gave the widely filmed handshake — the first of its kind since Bill Clinton shook hands with Fidel Castro in 2000 — more importance, calling it a “historical, game-changing” moment.
“The handshake is a timely symbol which only accelerates on both sides the hope for some type of agreement and reconciliation — not only for Alan Gross but other issues that push U.S.-Cuban relations forward,” he said. “Nelson Mandela’s legacy hangs over the imagery of those two leaders pressing the flesh. It would have been inconceivable for them to pass up such an opportunity.”
Added Julia Sweig, director for Latin America studies at the New York-based Council on Relations, in an interview with Reuters: “Perhaps the American and Cuban presidents grasp, with this handshake, that the work they have to do together is far easier than South Africa’s struggle against apartheid.”
The greeting follows by exactly a week a declaration by Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that links — in unprecedented detail — the release of Gross, 64, with the case of five Cuban nationals arrested in 1998 and charged with spying against the United States. Three years later, they were sentenced to long terms at federal prisons in Arizona, California, Kentucky and Florida. One of the five, Rene Gonzalez, was released in October 2011 and allowed to return to Cuba this past April.
Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, the ministry’s director-general for North American affairs, said “the Cuban government reiterates its willingness to establish an immediate dialogue with the U.S. government in order to find a solution to the case of Mr. Gross on a reciprocal basis, which respects the humanitarian concerns of Cuba related to the case of the four Cuban anti-terrorist heroes” who remain incarcerated in U.S. prisons.
“Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labañino, Antonio Guerrero and Fernando Gonzalez are serving long and unjust terms for crimes they never committed and which were never proven,” she said. “Their imprisonment has a high human cost to them and their families. They haven’t seen their children grow up, they have health problems and they have been separated from their families and their country for more than 15 years.”
Vidal’s statement drew a distinction between the four Cuban spies and Gross, who was arrested Dec. 3, 2009, right before departing Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. A subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Potomac resident claimed he was merely trying to help connect Cuba’s tiny Jewish community to the Internet.
But that’s not how Cuba sees it.
“Mr. Gross was detained, processed and punished for violating Cuban laws, for implementing a program financed by the U.S. government whose objective was to destabilize Cuba’s constitutional order through the establishment of illegal and hidden communications systems using noncommercial technologies,” Vidal said. “These actions constitute grave crimes which are severely punished in most countries, including the United States.”
Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry revealed that the White House is conducting behind-the-scenes talks to win Gross’ release.
“We’ve had any number of initiatives and outreaches over the last several years and engagement with a number of different individuals who have traveled to Cuba,” Kerry said during a Dec. 5 press conference at NATO headquarters in Belgium. “And we are currently engaged in some discussions regarding that, which I’m not at liberty to go into any kind of detail.”