An expression of courtesy, as commonplace as a handshake, has seemingly signified the end of one facet of the Cold War. The qualifier is used advisedly as a “new Cold War” rages in another part of the world although Ukraine is as far removed from Washington as it is from Havana. When Barack Obama and Raul Castro shook hands in Panama City, both Presidents signified the high water-mark of the Summit of the Americas. More profoundly, the gesture has scripted a momentous phase in international relations, though it would be delusory to conclude that the rough edges have been ironed out. Far from it. For all the bonhomie, it is generally conceded that the two countries have tip-toed towards reconciliation.
Neither the tightness of the grip – with the UN Secretary-General in attendance – nor for that matter a “meeting at the sidelines” can heal the increasing souring of relations post-1959, specifically during the heyday of Fidel Castro&’s Cuba. Or for that matter, the imperialist-communist construct that once vitiated international power-play in as chilling a manner as the present-day surge of the Islamic Caliphate.
Nonetheless, the past ought not to detract from the significance of last weekend&’s brief encounter. The formal reconciliation of two old foes has been the actual achievement in Panama City, one that has overshadowed the irritants in US dealings with Venezuela.
Both leaders have choreographed the essay towards a detente, almost an unprecedented joint venture in diplomacy that has been the focal point of the Summit of the Americas. Both leaders can be credited with having achieved a critical measure of forward movement; the process needs to be buttressed for they have conveyed a pregnant message to their respective domestic constituencies. President Obama can legitimately boast an achievement as he goes through the wrap-up motions of his second term, though he will have to countenance Republican opposition to the lifting of sanctions. President Castro has sought to convince Cubans – their patience sorely tried by the crippling economic curbs – that he is intent on mending fences with America.
There are rumblings too over the risk of a betrayal of the revolution. Mr Castro&’s brief presentation was as diplomatic as it was gracious – “I have told President Obama that I get very emotional talking about the revolution and the sanctions that followed. I apologise to him because President Obama had no responsibility for this.” The US President, who belongs to the post-1959 generation, was riveted on the present – “This is obviously a historic meeting. It is time for us to try something new.” Despite a striking reversal of traditional positions, the baby-steps towards reconciliation might continue for some time yet. Markedly, Mr Obama is yet to take a call on the State Department&’s recommendation on removing Cuba from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism.