Obama-Castro handshake?

American conservatives, especially in the hard-right sector, are up in arms, where they like to be, aghast at President Obama’s handshake with the president of Cuba, Raul Castro. Fidel’s brother. Raul took over when his sibling grew too ill to go on TV. Messrs. Obama and Castro were seated near one another at the Nelson Mandela funeral in South Africa and, exchanging pleasantries with other heads of state, the U.S. president found himself confronting his Caribbean counterpart and, well, either offered his hand or accepted Castro’s.

A big deal?

Betrayal! screamed those inclined to scream.

A breakthrough? asked the more realistic.

Attempting a measured perspective, the New York Times reported the Obama-Castro handshake ” instantly raised questions about its deeper meaning. Was Mr. Obama trying to signal a new effort by the American government to reach an accommodation with Cuba 50 years after the Communist revolution that put (the Castros) in power? Or was Mr. Obama simply trying to avoid delivering a diplomatic snub at a memorial dedicated to forgiveness?”

Let’s hope it’s the former. Certainly the Arkansas Farm Bureau does.

“It’s 50 years old and the same regime is still in power today,” says Randy Veach, the Bureau’s president.

Veach was referring to the official ban on essentially all forms of commercial and personal exchange with the little island nation, 90 miles from the Florida coast.

The trade embargo, you will remember, was imposed by President Kennedy, irritated that Fidel, having deposed a corrupt and repressive regime, declared himself a Marxist and began confiscating U.S. property. Things went quickly from dumb to worse: the Kennedy crew tried to overthrow Castro with the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion and then undertook various assassination plots against him, which the intended victim became aware of; and then came the missiles of October.

That was a half-century ago. For almost as long, successive members of Congress from East Arkansas have complained that the embargo denies their farmers a potential bonanza. A Cuba in need of rice represents “an awesome opportunity” for the Delta, a spokesman for Rep. Rick Crawford said this week, quickly adding that some “human rights issues” need addressing.

Some congressional hawks of both parties have opposed a relaxation of the embargo, citing Fidel’s past fondness for aiding revolutions elsewhere. Kennedy’s successors, of both parties, have declined to lift the ban for fear of losing Florida’s electoral votes, which could hinge on the politically powerful and always vocal community of Cuban exiles and their heirs.

I doubt even the CIA knows with any certainty how many killings (murders, kangaroo court executions, combat deaths in “wars of liberation”) have been the work of the Castro regime, and suspect Fidel and Raoul themselves haven’t kept count. But I know that FDR shook hands with Stalin, Kennedy with Khrushchev, Nixon with Mao, Ford with Brezhnev, Clinton with Yasir Arafat and so forth; other high-ranking U.S. government personnel, Democrats and Republicans, have palmed it with the likes of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad and — so forth. Against all the aforementioned foreign heads of state the Castros, in sheer butchery, pale in comparison. In Russia, China, Libya and much of the Middle East, religious, ethnic and human rights are uncertain at best and frequently dispensable when they exist at all. And yet we do, or did, or are trying to again do, business with all of them — trillions in trade. Oil, oil, oil; other minerals, fibers, manufactured goods, finished products and farm commodities. Yet Cuba — no sale.

And forget bowing — Bush I not only shook hands with Abdullah, he held hands with the crude-oiler, which occasioned some dimwitted jokes and raised eyebrows among the same segment now in high dudgeon over Mr. Obama low-fiving it with Castro. (As it happens, men hold hands in Saudi Arabia as a gesture of friendship, nothing more).

The embargo, an immediate and continuing failure, is a lingering Cold War remnant, and embarrassment. If Cuba has not thrived — at $121 billion its Gross Domestic Product is but some 20 percent larger than Arkansas’s — it has survived, and its economy likely will improve, along with those of countries prudent enough to engage it. There is, too, evidence that Raul is every so carefully nudging his nation toward more western foreign and domestic policies.

International trade is complicated and the Cuba prospect decidedly so. Even should Mr. Obama boldly reverse Kennedy’s course, Congress probably would have to approve a bi-lateral trade agreement. Don’t bet on it, not anytime soon. Why would a Congress that can’t approve a budget, can’t even pass a farm bill, do the smart thing?

Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.