2013 has the potential to end up as a year of milestones in global foreign policy. The most significant political achievement of the year is the rapprochement in relations between the US and Iran after the signing of a temporary deal on the Iran nuclear programme, which had bedeviled relations between the two for a long time. That deal is now going in the right direction despite stiff opposition from Washington’s traditional allies. And now comes the news of this handshake between President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa. Such a handshake was unthinkable until now, and since relations between even sworn enemies shift and oscillate in global diplomacy, there is nothing wrong in reading a little bit more into this handshaking.
Are the 1950s coming back, asked a commentator in the New York Times, in five words summing the whole import of the handshake. Accidents like this don’t just happen because world leaders don’t stumble into serious blunders which can cost them their jobs. There is a possibility of reconciliation between Cuba and the US and there are clear signs that both sides recognize this. Granma, the Cuban Communist Party’s newspaper, ran a photo of the handshake and pointed out that it was a historic first. And we need to remember Obama’s remarks at a Florida fundraiser in November, where he suggested revising the 53-year-old US embargo against Cuba. For many Cubans, the latest development is welcome news. Obama’s positive attitude, and the handshake, spells hope that the two countries will cease hostilities, ease travel restrictions and start trading, which will benefit both countries immensely. Though it will be premature to expect immediate and tangible results from the handshake as the hostility between the two is very deep-rooted, it can set the foundation for a thaw in relations. Both sides can now work towards creating a conducive atmosphere for talks and interaction. That will be a more sensible approach because a sudden patch-up will be both difficult and a bit hard for the conservatives on either side to digest.
However, Washington will have to compete with Russia for influence in Havana. A few days before the famous handshake, Russia made the biggest debt write-off in its history. President Vladimir Putin’s government agreed to reduce Cuba’s debt to $3.2bn from $32bn, payable in equal installments over the next 10 years.
It’s interesting and commendable that global diplomacy is throwing new surprises. Relations between countries are never set in stone. Every country is driven by its interests, and it’s these changing interests which are creating huge surprises•