Some are calling it a Mandela-like gesture, others are calling it nauseating, but whatever your opinion it is more than just a handshake, which apparently is the way the White House is spinning it.
In the run up to last year's election, Obama was making overtures to Cuba, which suggested a thaw in relations that were greeted warmly by most of the Cuban-American community in Florida. From a pragmatic point of view, it probably helped him carry the state in the election, but Obama seems to be looking beyond the polls and didn't miss the opportunity to make contact with Raul Castro on the way to the podium to make a speech commemorating Nelson Mandela.
Back in 1990 when Mandela visited the United States, many Republican and a few Democratic lawmakers insisted that he renounce his support of Cuba, among other pariah nations. Mandela politely refused. This earned him the enmity of Jesse Helms, who turned his back on Mandela when he addressed a joint session of Congress.
Cuba has long been seen as a thorn in US relations with Latin America. American presidents have accused Castro of spreading communism throughout the region and have doggedly insisted on sanctions that for the most part have failed. Just about everyone else in the world trades freely with Cuba, including Canada.
There have been moments when reconciliation seemed on the event horizon, most notably in 2000 when Clinton eased restrictions on Cuban travel and remittances. This was the result of Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Havana. Unfortunately, the election of George W. Bush ended any potential thaw, and saw most of the restrictions put firmly back in place.
One of the most frustrating things about the Obama administration is that it hasn't done more to improve relations with Latin America. Of course, his foreign policy has been dominated by the wars George Bush bequeathed him, but Obama has pretty much left Latin America on the back burner, much to the chagrin of Central and South Americans. Maybe this handshake will rekindle trade talks and open the door to a new era in Cuban-American relations.