Despite pique in some exile circles when President Barack Obama shook hands earlier this week with Cuban President Raúl Castro, a top U.S. diplomat for the Americas said Friday that she was watching his greeting of another president more closely.
The handshake drama took place on Tuesday at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. On his way to the rostrum, Obama had to navigate past not only Castro but also Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. She has been on prickly terms with Washington since revelations earlier this year that the National Security Agency had monitored her emails and conversations.
“The whole world was clearly looking at the greeting for Raúl Castro, but I was much more interested in who was standing next to Raúl Castro and what the greeting was going to be like with Dilma Rousseff,’’ said Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson during a meeting Friday with reporters and editors from the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald.
So incensed was Rousseff over the NSA surveillance that she postponed a state visit to Washington that was scheduled in October and has threatened that Brazil may develop a parallel Internet more impervious to spying attempts.
While Castro got a courteous handshake, Rousseff got a kiss on both cheeks and a hug. “I did think the [Rousseff] greeting was quite warm,’’ said Jacobson.
As far as pressing the flesh with Castro, Jacobson said, “Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake.” The president, she said, was taking a cue from the model of courtesy that Mandela exhibited throughout his life.
Despite the “slowdown’’ in their relationship after the diplomatic row, Brazil and the United States are now in the process of moving their mutual agenda ahead, said Jacobson.
“I have no doubt that the president would very much like President Rousseff to come to the White House,’’ she said. Obama, Jacobson said, was “very open’’ to a conversation about rescheduling “whenever the Brazilians are ready.’’
But it’s likely the Brazilian government will want to see the results of a promised inquiry into the NSA allegations first.
Meanwhile, Jacobson said that work on some of the more than two dozen “dialogues” between Brazil and the United States on topics such as economics and trade and the elimination of racial discrimination have resumed.
But so-called super dialogues at the ministerial level that paused after the NSA allegations are still on hold, she said.
Jacobson said the president hoped the state visit could be arranged early next year — before Brazil’s presidential election season heats up. General elections in Brazil will be held on Oct. 5.
“Obviously with the electoral calendar there is a certain amount of time pressure,’’ she said. “Neither we nor the Brazilians want to do anything that could be perceived as having an undue effect on internal procedures as part of the elections.’’
Earlier in the day Jacobson spoke at an event organized by the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy and at a news conference.
She said that the principles on which U.S. Cuba policy is based — “to help the Cuban people make their own choices” — have not changed. “Contact with the Cuban people is not something we’re trying to avoid,’’ she said.
During her visit to the Herald’s Doral headquarters, Jacobson elaborated on a remark that Obama made during a November fundraiser at the home of Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation.
The president spoke of the need to adjust and be more creative in Cuba policy.
“I don’t think that represents a major change in policy,” Jacobson said. It is, she said, “simply a reflection of reality. We are not bound to do things the way we always have.’’
Through the years, she said, the relationship with Cuba has gone through levels of higher and lower tension.
There has been some progress in the past year with discussions on resumption of mail service, migration talks and a dialogue about oil-spill mitigation between the two countries, Jacobson added.
“Within these dialogues, the relationship has been very respectful and fairly productive,’’ she said.
But the continued detention in a Cuban prison of U.S. government contractor Alan Gross has been a source of tension. Gross, 64, has just begun the fifth year in a 15-year sentence for bringing military-grade communications equipment into Cuban, ostensibly to help Cuban Jews communicate better with the outside world.
The Gross family and his supporters have urged the United States to do more to secure Gross’ release, and his wife Judy recently urged Obama “to do whatever it takes to bring Alan home.”
The U.S. has long called for Gross’ immediate and unconditional release, but Jacobson said, “We’ve always been willing to hear from Cuba about what would be their formula to get him released. We’re willing to hear every option.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently said the United States is engaged in behind-the-scenes discussions to win Gross’ release.
But Jacobson seemed to reject any negotiation that would link Gross’ release to the fate of the so-called Cuban Five, who were convicted in Florida of espionage and sentenced to long prison terms.
One of the Cuban Five has been released and is now back in Cuba, and Jacobson said another was scheduled for parole in February. But she said Gross wasn’t a spy: “A spy-for-spy trade would acknowledge something that isn’t true.”
El Nuevo Staff Writer Juan Tamayo contributed to this report