A year ago, when U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro awkwardly shook hands at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, social media erupted with speculation about what the gesture might mean. Most Cuba watchers were skeptical, and they cautioned against reading too much into the encounter. But as Wednesday’s historic announcement of a new direction in U.S.-Cuban policy made clear, sometimes a handshake is more than a just a handshake.
Over the last 18 months, it turns out, U.S. and Cuban officials conducted secret high-level dialogues that were hosted by Canada and the Vatican. At the top of the Americans’ agenda was Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor arrested in Cuba in 2009 for his role in a covert program to increase Internet access on the island. Cuban negotiators, meanwhile, hoped to secure the remaining members of the Cuban Five— intelligence agents who had been imprisoned in the United States since the late 1990s. Many observers had called for a swap, but the Obama administration had long refused to countenance what it considered an unequal exchange. In the end, the face-saving solution was for Cuba to unilaterally release Gross on humanitarian grounds and the United States to trade the three Cubans for an unknown U.S. intelligence officer. The timing of the announcement, coinciding both with Hanukkah (Gross is Jewish) and the feast of Saint Lazarus (syncretized in Afro-Cuban religions with the deity Babalu Ayé, widely associated with healing) could not have been more auspicious.
What remains unclear is how negotiations over Gross gave way to broader discussions culminating in a commitment to restore full diplomatic ties. Just a week ago, Cubaphiles reeled when the Associated Press again exposed USAID’s blundering democracy promotion programs on the island. The latest in their yearlong series of reports focused on efforts to amplify the antigovernment potential of the Cuban hip-hop group Los Aldeanos (without the artists’ participation). The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control,
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