Sometimes a handshake is more than just a handshake. When President Obama warmly embraced the late Hugo Chávez at the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, he lent respectability to a brutal autocrat who had crippled Venezuelan democracy, terrorized his political opponents, and supported both the Iranian theocracy and the Colombian FARC. When then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hugged Ecuadorean leader Rafael Correa during a visit to Quito in 2010, she made Correa seem like a normal democratic president, rather than a thuggish Chávez acolyte who had persecuted independent journalists and gravely weakened his country’s public institutions.
Likewise, when a smiling Obama shook hands with Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandela’s South African memorial service, he conferred on Castro a measure of legitimacy that no Communist dictator deserves, least of all one whose government continues to hold an American hostage.
The hostage’s name is Alan Gross, and he’s a 64-year-old humanitarian worker who went to Cuba several times in 2009 on behalf of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). His chief mission was to help the island’s tiny Jewish population—estimated at fewer than 1,500 people, in a nation of roughly 11.3 million—obtain Internet access. Upon completing his fifth trip, Gross was preparing to fly home, when he was arrested by Cuban authorities and accused of conducting espionage. It was a ludicrous allegation, but in March 2011 the Communist regime sentenced Gross to 15 years in prison.
He remains incarcerated today, and his health has deteriorated considerably. In a recent letter to President Obama, in which he pleaded for the president to help secure his release, Gross reported that he is “confined 23 hours a day to a small cell with two fellow inmates. I spend my one hour outside each day in a tiny enclosed courtyard. I don’t sleep much, between my arthritis and the lights in my cell, which are kept on 24 hours a day. With the exception of a few phone calls and visits, I am completely isolated from the outside world.”
On the very day that Obama shook hands with Raúl Castro—who has been Cuba’s official “president” since 2008, when Fidel Castro formally relinquished the position—the Miami Herald published a strong editorial about Gross, calling the imprisoned USAID contractor a symbol of “the fundamentally unchanged nature of the [Cuban] regime.” As if trying to prove the editorial’s point, the Cuban government rounded up many high-profile dissidents, and violently assaulted others, to prevent them from holding demonstrations in honor of International Human Rights Day (which was also the same day as Mandela’s memorial service). According to the Herald, “The crackdown appeared to be one of the broadest in years.”