Barack Obama and Raoul Castro have shaken hands at the Americas Summit in Panama City, which goes to show that such gestures carry good meaning in international relations. The last time an American politician shook hands with a Cuban leader was a few months after the ouster of Fulgencio Batista on New Year's Day in 1959. Fidel Castro, Cuba's revolutionary leader, shook hands with US Vice President Richard Nixon at the United Nations. And that was a time when people around the world believed that Washington and Havana were headed for a fresh new phase in their relations.
That did not come to pass, though. President John F. Kennedy, convinced that he could help anti-Castro rebels based in Florida overthrow the regime in Havana, ordered an operation on Cuba's Bay of Pigs in 1961. It was a disaster. The Cubans, waiting for the invading forces, simply cut them down as they stepped ashore. It was a triumph for Cuba. But then came the missile crisis in 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union faced off over the presence of Moscow's missiles in Cuba. Eventually the crisis was defused, but not before the Americans imposed a blockade around Cuba, a position which has till now held Havana and Washington back from establishing normal ties with each other.
The irony is not to be missed. What President Kennedy set in motion in the early 1960s is now being undone by President Obama. That reminds you of the time in 1954 when US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles snubbed Chinese Premier Chou En-lai by rudely walking away as the latter moved toward him with outstretched hand. The place was the Geneva Conference. The incident was subsequently to harden the Chinese position toward America, to a point where Beijing would loudly support the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong in their war against US and South Vietnamese forces in the 1960s.
Fresh irony was observed years later. In February 1972, it was for President Richard Nixon to travel to China, stretch his hand out to a waiting Chou En-lai and thus reverse the course of history. The implication was obvious: the damage done by Dulles was being rolled back by Nixon who, incidentally, was US Vice President under Dwight Eisenhower when Dulles served as Secretary of State. A handshake, then, is sometimes all you need in diplomacy in order to bring about positive change in bilateral ties. But, of course, handshakes can sometimes be deceptive. Nikita Khrushchev and John Kennedy shook hands in Vienna in 1961, to little effect. Lyndon Johnson and Alexei Kosygin did a similar act in Glassboro, New Jersey, in 1967. Not much happened. But, yes, when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev shook hands in Geneva in 1985, there was a subtle hint that the world was about to change. It did, to devastating effect for the Soviet Union.
An unforgettable moment in history was the handshake between Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Pakistan's President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto at Simla in 1972. Having demonstrated needless hostility toward India for years, sometimes employing outrageous language against Mrs. Gandhi, Bhutto was clearly a humbled man in Simla. His country had lost a war; his soldiers were prisoners of war in India; and East Pakistan had turned into the independent state of Bangladesh. All these realities necessitated that handshake. It was symbolic of the turning point the Indian subcontinent had reached at that period in time.
There are other handshakes we remember only too well. Having cast Sheikh Mujibur Rahman into prison and clamped a conspiracy case on him, President Ayub Khan was eventually compelled to free the Bengali leader in February 1969. When they met in Rawalpindi a couple of days later at a round table conference, supreme irony was in the air. Here was an Ayub in his fast approaching twilight; and there was Mujib in the ascendant. In that handshake, the future was bidding goodbye to the past. And when Bangabandhu shook hands with General Tikka Khan at Lahore airport in February 1974, history seemed to be in mocking mood. A meaningful smile played on the Bangladesh leader's face. That smile was humiliation enough for Tikka, whose prisoner Mujib had become once Tikka's soldiers went into action against the Bengalis in March 1971.
A profoundly historic handshake was observed when West German Chancellor Willy Brandt offered his hand to East German leader Willy Stoph in 1970. Brandt's place in history was assured through his trip to East Berlin, for it was the earliest step in what would later come to known as détente between East and West. Brandt's Ostpolitik was revolutionary for its time, but it did lead to newer phases in history. Divided Germany would be one nation again.
Handshakes can be eloquent affairs. They can bring enemies together in moments of unforeseen drama. And that is precisely the way things happened when Anwar Sadat travelled to Jerusalem late on a night in November 1977, to be welcomed by all his nation's enemies in Israel. Menachem Begin was on hand to receive him and so were Moshe Dayan, Abb a Eban, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. The Sadat odyssey to Jerusalem did not bring peace to the Middle East, but it did prevent a fresh new war from breaking out. It did lead to new thinking on the ramifications of military conflict.
Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger met in Paris in 1969, shook hands, then met again and again to discuss the ways and means of ending the war in Vietnam. And the war would end only with the entry of North Vietnamese forces into Saigon in April 1975. Obviously, the handshake had had little to do here. Battle strategy was all.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor, The Daily Observer. E-mail: [email protected]