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Obama-Castro handshake: What it means, and what it doesn't

President Obama's reaching out to Cuba, symbolized in a handshake with Raúl Castro Saturday, is lauded in Latin America. But regional leaders aren't convinced the United States is genuine.

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President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro shake hands during their meeting at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama, Saturday. The leaders of the United States and Cuba held their first formal meeting in more than half a century on Saturday, clearing the way for a normalization of relations that had seemed unthinkable to both Cubans and Americans for generations.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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When President Obama reached out to shake the hand Cuban President Raúl Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama Saturday, he was reaching out to more than one man and one nation. 

He was reaching out to all Latin America.

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During the past decade, in particular, Washington has become concerned that it is "losing Latin America." This is a dramatic way of saying that American influence in Latin America has appeared to wane. Countries that once did as the United States wished and even directed – often as a result of American intervention – are now decidedly prickly. In 2013, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff even summarily canceled her own state dinner at the White House.

Saturday's handshake, in a way, was a signal of Mr. Obama's hope that both sides could now let bygones be bygones. 

But for Latin America, it seems, that will not be enough. 

At issue is something deeper than how the United States treats the region. It is how the United States sees the region.

For decades, Cuba was a central fault line in US-Latin America relations precisely for this reason. Within the region, Cuba was seen as the one nation that had had the gumption to stand up to the United States – and had been punished comprehensively for it.

America's determination to freeze Cuba out of the international community was merely the extreme example of how far the US would go to keep its backyard in line. It was America's implicit threat to the hemisphere. 

In meeting with Mr. Castro in Panama Saturday, Obama spoke to the emotional weight US-Cuba relations held within the region. "I'm optimistic that we will continue to make progress and this can and will be a turning point" not only with Cuba but across the region, Obama said at a news conference, according to Bloomberg.

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But it is clear that Latin American leaders think America's shift on Cuba could be more a change of convenience than a change of heart.

Cuba holds huge promise for American business. Normalizing relations, it is hoped, could set off an American gold rush on the island. There are small signs it has already begun.

But is America willing to accept the region's leftist leaders – and their policies, which are often dissonant with America's own – without secretly trying to undermine them? Some commentators have called the past decade Latin America's "second independence" – the moment when Latin America has come out from under American political influence to defiantly have its own foreign policy, even if it means canceling White House state dinners.

America's embrace of this has been more halting. Obama has taken steps. He said of Castro on Saturday: "We can disagree with a spirit of respect and civility and over time it is possible for us to turn the page." Castro responded by calling Obama an "honest man" – no small compliment.

But Latin American leaders look at Washington's recent sanctions on Venezuela and see the shadow of the more intrusive America of old.

The goal of the sanctions was to punish Venezuelan officials seen to be at the center of human-rights violations. Protests against Venezuela's leftist government recently left dozens of people dead, and while there were casualties on both sides, most were protesters.

But not a single Latin American nation, including allies such as Colombia and Mexico, backed the sanctions. The US had hoped that the normalization of relations with Cuba would create enough goodwill to win regional support on Venezuela. But to many, the Venezuela sanctions are seen little more than a ploy to unseat a regime America doesn't like and replace it with a more compliant one.

"It's the same story as always," said Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa. "What the United States is trying to do is destabilize the progressive governments in the region."

The irony is that American influence in Latin America is enormous and likely to continue regardless of what Washington does. Thirteen of the 17 Latin American nations import more for the United States than any other country, noted Gregory Weeks, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, in an opinion article for Al Jazeera.

It's not that "these governments wouldn't want better relations" with the US, writes Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, in The Guardian. "They all, including Venezuela, have significant trade and commercial relations with the US and would like to expand these."

The question is the appearance of American political interference. The US needs a "Nixon to China" moment with Latin America, Mr. Weisbrot suggests in US News & World Report. President Nixon's trip "was not just about beginning a process of opening diplomatic or commercial relations but also about coming to grips with the new reality that an independent 'Communist China' was here to stay."

Saturday's handshake was a start. But to Latin American leaders, it was just a start.