Post-handshake, Cuba embargo debate heats up again

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.  Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

The handshake between President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela last week re-exposed the controversial and longtime frosty relationship between the United States and Cuba. 

 Plenty of anti-Cuba voices blasted Mr. Obama for his public display of courtesy. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., whose parents emigrated from Cuba in 1956, sharply responded to the Obama-Castro handshake saying, "If the president was going to shake his hand, he should have asked him about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba."

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who was born in Havana, Cuba, echoed Rubio's ire, this time aimed at Secretary of State John Kerry: "And Mr. Secretary, sometimes a handshake is just a handshake. But when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., agreed, telling CNN on Sunday, that he believes the handshake has "great propaganda value for the Cuban government, which is oppressive, repressive."

"I don't think you should shake hands with someone who continues to violate his own country's human rights," McCain added.

There's worry among pro-embargo lawmakers that the president will move to loosen the strict policies put in place during the height of the Cold War, as hinted by Mr. Obama as recently as November.

"The notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet, Google and world travel doesn't make sense," Mr. Obama said at a Miami fundraiser last month hosted by the chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, Jorge Mas Santos.

While it remains to be seen if or how exactly the administration will update policies, there are strong feelings from both sides towards lifting the 51-year-old economic, commercial, and financial embargo.

Critics of the embargo believe that the likes of Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen are exploiting its symbolic nature for political reasons.

"The embargo ends up being a symbol more than something practical that has an effect of promoting the state purpose of the embargo, which is promoting democracy and human rights on the island," Carl Meacham, the director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Americas Program, told CBS News.

At the U.N. General Assembly this past October, the United States and Israel stood alone in a vote of 188 to 2 against a resolution calling for an end to the blockade imposed by the United States against Cuba. This vote also marked the 22nd consecutive year that the General Assembly has urged for the U.S. to end the embargo.

"Barbaric" is a term frequently used by those who decry the blockade to describe a policy that has amounted to a whopping $1.26 trillion worth of economic damages to Cuba, as revealed by Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez before the General Assembly in October. With the introduction of political liberalization and economic reform by Castro in his first term, many believe that now is an especially crucial time for the United States to re-establish a relationship with Cuba in order to help usher along reform in a transitory period.

"This is simply a matter of doing something that is right in terms of policy effectiveness," José Raúl Perales, a director of the international division at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told CBS News.

Broadening economic engagement and allowing for increased travel in to Cuba in the midst of Castro's economic reform may allow for a more streamlined path away from a communist regime towards a democracy.

Although Perales admits that the process of reform is not necessarily a "linear relationship" but that at the moment, the United States' relationship with Cuba is so poisonous that it precludes the two countries from even having a conversation about how to undertake reform.

"It is well proven that economic liberalization creates space for political liberalization," Arturo Lopez Levy, a lecturer and doctoral candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, told CBS News. There are other slight but telling reforms under Castro, signifiers that the country is headed in the right direction: Cubans now have the right to travel and the right to free exercise of religious beliefs, two rights that Lopez Levy refers to as "multipliers" of other rights. 

Of other significance is the emerging private sector and budding entrepreneurship that has developed in Cuba due to a series of unprecedented economic reforms under Castro. The Communist Party has allowed for an increase in self-employment and privately run businesses, in addition to the legalization of the buying and selling of property.

Cuba may not be headed for a purely capitalist market but the country is moving towards a mixed economy, a change that is visible just by walking through Havana streets filled with private vendors selling items to tourists.

Entrepreneurs in Cuba, however, face extraordinary hardships due to the limited supply of items within the country. Many small business owners travel to the U.S. in order to stock their businesses because it is too expensive to buy from an individual distributor in the country. Some advocate that with greater availability of items, there is more direct engagement, therefore empowering the consumer.

According to Lopez Levy, the number of individuals working in small businesses has tripled from 160,000 to 390,000 between 2010 and 2013, "By binding U.S. producers, U.S. business closer to Cuba, with the elimination of some of the restrictions, we can really start building up a business class in Cuba. As we see in all parts of the world entrepreneurs are the backbone of economies, but they are also global citizens."

Opponents, however, argue that these reforms are simply a modernization of socialism.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, who sits on the board of directors of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, believes that if we increase supply to Cuba, it is not the consumer who will prosper but the Castro regime.

"Their interest is in lining their pockets," Claver-Carone told CBS News. "We need to maintain the pressure."

  • Jacqueline Alemany

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