President Barack Obama’s handshake and few words with Cuban President Raul Castro at the Johannesburg memorial ceremony for Nelson Mandela could mean something or nothing, but it should mean a new beginning for America’s Cuban policy.
Prior to Tuesday’s brief encounter in the soccer stadium where both men came to pay tribute to the late South African president, Americans were reminded by the news coverage of the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination of the disastrous start to 54 years of bad relations with the nearby island. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba and the subsequent effort of the Soviet Union to install dangerous weapons 90 miles from U.S. shores have not been forgotten or forgiven by either country.
Mr. Obama was entirely correct to greet the Cuban president. Both men had been invited to speak by their South African hosts. Perhaps most important, forgiveness between former enemies was at the core of the philosophy of the man they were there to honor.
U.S.-Cuban policy is in strong need of review by Mr. Obama and his administration. Cuba is taking small steps toward improving its treatment of its citizens and sprucing up its economy. If the United States 50 or 30 or even 10 years ago had made efforts to draw Cuba into the hemispheric family of nations, rather than pursuing a failed policy of isolation while waiting for the Castros to die or go away, America would be much better off in 2013.
The United States gains nothing by having such a poor country nearby, with travel to and from Cuba confounded for both Cubans and Americans and bad relations with Cuba damaging U.S. dealings with the rest of Latin America. What’s more, Puerto Rico or the U.S. mainland — instead of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — should host the terrorist penal colony which Mr. Obama still hasn’t closed.
The president’s handshake with Mr. Castro could and should lead to improved U.S.-Cuban relations. Maybe they should agree next to have lunch.