Latin America & Caribbean

Handshake symbolises new mood of optimism

President Obama and Raul Castro shake hands Image copyright Josue Garcia
Image caption Historic handshake: President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro

There is no doubt the enduring image of the Summit of the Americas will be that of US President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro shaking hands just before the inauguration ceremony.

So much so, that Josue Garcia, the photographer who took it, has already been asked to give a number of interviews.

Mr Garcia works for the Panamanian president's office, so he will not get rich by selling the image.

But his eyes light up with pride when he is introduced to me as the man who captured "that" photograph.

Rampant inequality

Quiet and a little bashful, he goes back to editing the other pictures he took at the summit.

Because while all the attention may have been focused on Presidents Castro and Obama, there were 33 other delegations there as well.

"Thirty five human beings working for 900 million citizens of the Americas," is how the summit's host, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela, puts it.

And there is certainly no shortage of problems in the western hemisphere for them to tackle.

Inequality is rampant in many of the 35 nations, and in his message to the summit, Pope Francis said governments could no longer "hope that the poor collect the crumbs that fall from the table of the rich".

It was a sentiment echoed by Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez, who told the BBC that it was time to move away from trickle-down economics.

"At the same time that we're growing, we have to share those riches and do so in a socially just manner," he said.

"How? We have to follow the best social policy which is generating genuine, decent jobs for our people."

Image copyright VII Summit of the Americas
Image caption Mr Perez Molina addressed the problem of migration

The Pope warned the immense disparity of opportunities between one country and another also led many people to "feel obliged to abandon their homeland and family, becoming easy prey to human traffickers and slave labour".

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina also touched on the problem of migration in his speech at the summit, reminding his fellow leaders that 77,000 unaccompanied minors had left Central America for the US between 2009 and 2014.

Difficult challenges

Their reasons for leaving are manifold, but they include some of the region's most difficult challenges such as insecurity, domestic violence, drug trafficking, gangs, poverty and exclusion.

And then there is the western hemisphere's longest running armed conflict between left-wing Farc rebels and the government in Colombia.

The two sides are currently engaged in peace talks in the Cuban capital, Havana.

The fact they should have sat down to negotiate after more than five decades of strife and a number of previous failed attempts was lauded by many leaders at the summit.

Cuba's good offices in hosting the talks are also thought to have contributed significantly to convincing US State Department officials to recommend the Communist island be removed from the US list of countries sponsoring terrorism.

Colombia's neighbours in particular are cheering the process on.

They hope an eventual settlement will mean less trouble in their border areas, which are used by the Farc as hideouts and as corridors through which they smuggle cocaine.

President Varela of Panama told the BBC drug trafficking remained a major problem in the region, especially because of the crime it bred.

He said: "70% of the homicides in Latin America are related to drug trafficking, and 70% of those homicides are kids between 18 and 30 years old."

Gang-plagued Honduras has the world's highest murder rate, according to a United Nations report.

But Latin America as a whole does not fare much better.

Image copyright Josue Garcia
Image caption The mood at the summit was upbeat

Since the mid-1950s, murder rates have been five to eight times higher than those in Europe or Asia.

But for all the negatives, summit host Mr Varela is optimistic.

For him, the historic handshake that captured all the headlines demonstrated countries can put aside their political and ideological differences to work together for things that really matter to the people such as basic sanitation, water, security, education and health.

"The things that unite us are that we want to work for our people and face the same challenges," he said.

And for Mr Varela, that unity was encapsulated in the moment he, Mr Obama and Mr Castro waved to the cameras after that news-making handshake.