It was a cringingly awkward moment. After their press conference, Cuban President Raul Castro—as the U.S. President reached out to give him a diplomatic hug—clumsily grabbed Obama’s arm and attempted to lift it into the classic raised fist of revolutionary struggle. Instead, as Obama looked on quizzically, Castro lifted Obama’s flaccid arm and limp wrist.
The viral image, though, conveys more than just the uncomfortable moments of unscripted diplomacy. Embedded in it is the conflict of what both leaders needed to get and convey from the historic visit of a U.S. president to the one-time Cold War enemy. Both believed and wanted to present this historic occasion as a victory for both of their governments on their own turns. While diplomacy isn’t a zero sum game, in this case, for both sides victory means different things.
On the U.S. side, Obama’s December 17, 2014 announcement of his extensive executive actions to loosen the 53-year-old economic embargo and plans to normalize relations was a piece of a broader foreign policy vision and regional strategy. That strategy was based on the idea that by opening relations with the isolated island, he could affect political change in Cuba’s future, in particular as the gerontocratic revolution’s leadership circle—that still largely sits on the Politiburo—started to pass from the scene. Under this narrative, the Cuban government’s receptivity to the White House’s overtures signaled that the famously anti-American, revolutionary government had said uncle; that the government was willing to surrender all that anti-imperialist vitriol because the regime faced dimming economic prospects with Venezuela’s oil giveaway of 100,000 barrels per day coming to an end and the Cuban economy running out of steam. Victory for Obama was that the Cubans now needed the U.S. and was willing to jettison decades of anti-American posturing to negotiate.
On the Cuba side, Obama’s policy changes, diplomatic normalization and trip to Cuba was a signal that finally—after years of trying to overturn the revolutionary government through proxy, subterfuge and isolation and lecturing Cuba about human rights—the U.S. government had said uncle and had accepted the government. The Cuban regime wanted to sell this as the moment when the U.S. had relinquished its decades-long policy of waiting and fighting for some future U.S.-made democracy in Cuba, peppered with Cuban-Americans who had longed to return to positions of power in a post-Castro government.
There was the brief moment in what was supposed to be a staged question-and-answer period in which a confused Castro was forced by Obama to take a question about political prisoners in Cuba. As he fiddled with his headphones and complained that he was only supposed to answer one question, the real Raul Castro came through. The aging autocrat shakily implied that there were no political prisoners in Cuba and asked for a list of them so that he could release them that night. (Note there are at least 30 documented political prisoners—but don’t expect them to be returning home tonight.) All the while, Obama leaned against the podium looking at the Cuban president, clearly enjoying his counterpart’s discomfort. More than an Obama trap, as Politico has called it, the fumbling, angry reaction demonstrated a stubborn leader not accustomed to having to answer to the people.
But it was the post-press conference dance that really grabbed popular (and internet attention). As both leaders met between the two podiums, each tried assert his symbolic, physical spin on the past 18 months of changes and Obama’s visit to claim victory.
On the one side, there was the young, handsome, tall leader of the world power, hugging the older, feeble Cold War holdover.
On the other, an aging warrior who had finally seen the enemy come to him, giving him a long-coveted-respectability that—despite the regime’s anti-Americanism—the regime had always sought And to celebrate that, Raul Castro tried to lift the President’s hand in the salute of workers’ third world solidarity.
But the U.S. president wasn’t going that far. So, Obama slackened his arm and held his hand limp refusing to form the classic upraised clenched fist.
The result was a perfect, uncomfortable symbol of the different narratives both leaders have had in the lead up to this event and its significance. Which one will win out after Air Force One leaves Havana is impossible to know. But hopefully it won’t be as uncomfortable to watch as that now-famous gaffe.