Obama Meets Raul Castro at Mandela Memorial

They shook hands. For a former subcontractor stuck in Cuba, that could mean a lot.

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro during the official memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium December 10, 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
National Journal
Matt Berman
Dec. 10, 2013, 3:33 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama met Cuban Pres­id­ent Raul Castro for a hand­shake at Tues­day’s me­mori­al for Nel­son Man­dela in South Africa. While Obama isn’t the first U.S. of­fi­cial to meet with Castro, the meet­ing comes at a par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing time in Cuba-U.S. re­la­tions.

Four years ago, former U.S. sub­con­tract­or Alan Gross was ar­res­ted in Cuba and even­tu­ally con­victed of “acts against the in­de­pend­ence or ter­rit­ori­al in­teg­rity of the state.” He was sen­tenced to 15 years in jail. Earli­er this month, on the four-year an­niversary of his ar­rest, Gross wrote an open let­ter to the pres­id­ent. “I have lost al­most everything in the last four years,” he wrote. He con­tin­ued:

With the ut­most re­spect, Mr. Pres­id­ent, I fear that my gov­ern­ment ““ the very gov­ern­ment I was serving when I began this night­mare ““ has aban­doned me. Of­fi­cials in your ad­min­is­tra­tion have ex­pressed sym­pathy and called for my un­con­di­tion­al re­lease, and I very much ap­pre­ci­ate that. But it has not brought me home.

It is clear to me, Mr. Pres­id­ent, that only with your per­son­al in­volve­ment can my re­lease be se­cured.

A hand­shake alone doesn’t con­sti­tute ac­tion. But a warm­ing of re­la­tions with Castro, who asked to meet with Obama soon after Obama won his first elec­tion in 2008, could be a ma­jor step in the dir­ec­tion that Gross is spe­cific­ally ask­ing for.

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