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.
Yet while most Cubans aren’t naive enough to believe that the handshake between Raul Castro and President Barack 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, Raul 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.
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,” said Afro-Cuban documentarian Gloria Rolando. “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.”Tonya Weathersbee is columnist based in Jacksonville, Fla. She wrote this for The Root.