December 10th, 2013
07:56 AM ET
8 months ago

A brief but important handshake between Obama, Castro

Updated 2:51 p.m. ET, 12/10/13

(CNN) – Arriving on stage at FNB stadium in Johannesburg to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela, President Barack Obama shook hands with dozens of other world leaders, pausing briefly to grasp the hand of Cuban President Raul Castro.

The greeting quickly sparked a strong debate on Twitter between those who praised and disagreed with the handshake, given that the United States does not share diplomatic relations with Cuba.

But a senior administration official said it was not "pre-planned encounter."

"Above all else, today is about honoring Nelson Mandela, and that was the President's singular focus at the memorial service," the official continued. "We appreciate that people from all over the world are participating in this ceremony. As the President said, we urge leaders to honor Mandela's struggle for freedom by upholding the basic human rights of their people."

Nonetheless, it was a moment of high symbolism. The U.S. and Cuba have not had diplomatic relations since the Cuban Revolution more than 50 years ago. The President has eased some of the economic embargo and travel restrictions that the administration of President George W. Bush strongly enforced, but relations still are tense. Cuba continues to imprison an American citizen, Alan Gross, who was arrested in 2009 on charges of attempting to destabilize the Cuban government.

Obama knew, of course, that Castro would be on stage. But refusing to shake Castro's hand would not have been in keeping with Mandela's legacy of reconciliation.

"It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion and generosity and truth," Obama said in his speech at the memorial service.

It was not the first handshake between American-Cuban leaders. In 2000, at the United Nations, then President Bill Clinton shook hands with Fidel Castro, the leader of the Cuban Revolution, its first revolutionary president, and Raul's brother.

While some saw Obama's handshake with Castro as nothing more than a moment of politeness, other saw it as a missed opportunity.

"If the President was going to shake his hand, he should have asked him about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba," Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican whose parents emigrated from Cuba, said in a statement.

Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, who was born in Cuba, made her feelings known to Secretary of State John Kerry in a congressional hearing.

"Mr. Secretary sometimes a handshake is just a handshake, but when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant," she said. "Raul Castro uses that hand to sign the orders to repress and jail democracy advocates."

Kerry signaled no policy changes toward Cuba, and argued the President urged world leaders in his speech to uphold basic human rights.

Pressed by Ros-Lehtinen on whether Castro is upholding those rights, Kerry flatly answered: "No. Absolutely not."

While the President did not mention Cuba by name in his speech, some of his remarks seemed directly aimed at dictatorial regimes.

"There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba's struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people," he said. "And there are too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard."

CNN Chief National Correspondent John King recalls it was a different story at the inauguration of Mandela in 1994, when Vice President Al Gore went out of his way–ducking behind aides, through doors–to avoid a greeting with then-Cuban President Fidel Castro.

"But an inauguration is very different from a memorial service," King added on CNN's "New Day." "Raul Castro was right there. I would say the President of the United States really didn't have much of a choice."

Had he lingered a long time, King said, Obama might have started a bigger backlash than the one he'll likely receive.

"But make no doubt about it...somebody will decide that was a horrible thing," King continued. "I think the President was showing respect for the moment."

The reaction on Twitter was divided:

– CNN's Ashley Killough, Jim Acosta and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.


Filed under: Cuba • Nelson Mandela • President Obama • South Africa
soundoff (216 Responses)
  1. Sniffit

    Ah yes, nothing could be worse: he was polite to someone the righties mindlessly detest because they're told to.

    Now, cut the crap and end the useless, meaningless embargo. The Cold War, like the Civil War, is over...no matter how much the GOP/Teatrolls want to pretend that they are both ongoing.

    December 10, 2013 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
  2. 'Seyi Odunjo

    Obama has practicalised Mandela's
    message to the world.
    A befitting farewell to
    to Mandela – love of
    one another and peace.

    December 10, 2013 09:52 am at 9:52 am |
  3. Natrldiver

    Hey Sniffit, better get back into your history books. Who established the embargo? Democrats. Who started the Civil War? Democrats. Who ended the Civil and Cold Wars? Republicans.

    December 10, 2013 09:53 am at 9:53 am |
  4. Miami

    Wonderful! This nonsense with Cuba should end as soon as possible. If Cubans dont like Castro, they themselves should do something about it. US should keep friendly relationship with Cuba. Instead of coming to Miami illegally and using tax payers' money to support themselves, Cubans should concentrate on building their country! We have enough fee loaders in Miami! They cat even speak English whey they take pledge of allegiance or apply for passport! This special treatment for this third world country should end long time ago! Lift the embargo now!!!!!

    December 10, 2013 09:53 am at 9:53 am |
  5. S.B. Stein

    It would be hard for Obama not to shake his hands. It is called being polite and following protocol of the event. If Obama had not, then there would be some negative reactions from many allies I am sure. I hope that would have given Obama a chance to ask Castro to release the political prisoners including the American held in Cuba.

    December 10, 2013 09:53 am at 9:53 am |
  6. GulpOff

    Couldn't agree more with Sniffit :-D

    December 10, 2013 09:53 am at 9:53 am |
  7. Peg

    Good grief, he just showed respect for all at a funeral, a respect that Mandela showed to others.

    CNN mentions this of course, "But refusing to shake Castro's hand would not have been in keeping with Mandela's legacy of reconciliation," but that won't stop them from debating the imaginary "significance" of this event to the point that even some reasonable minded individuals will begin to give it a second thought – all cable news outlets will blow this into a mindless frenzy for weeks.

    December 10, 2013 09:54 am at 9:54 am |
  8. Tampa Tim

    Where was the shoe ducker? Did he get a chance to say, "Yer either fer us or agin' us."

    December 10, 2013 09:57 am at 9:57 am |
  9. Lynda/Minnesota

    "Arriving on stage at FNB stadium in Johannesburg to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela, President Barack Obama shook hands with dozens of other world leaders, pausing briefly to grasp the hand of Cuban President Raul Castro."

    Well, yes. This is generally what world leaders do when on stage together. They shake hands. Especially while attending a memorial service for a world leader who has recently died and whose legacy they are all on stage to honor.

    December 10, 2013 09:59 am at 9:59 am |
  10. A True Conservative

    @Mama – I don't think you would recognize a "class act" if it walked up and bit you! He is a narcissist....plain and simple.....

    December 10, 2013 10:01 am at 10:01 am |
  11. Marc

    Leave it to the Liar in Chief to upstage a solemn event with these kinds of theatrics. Shame!

    Barack, you may have (for reasons that completely escape me and nearly everyone else) won a Nobel Prize, but you're no Nelson Mandela. And, heck, I'm an Indie who actually voted for you...twice!

    December 10, 2013 10:08 am at 10:08 am |
  12. Thomas

    @Sniffit
    Ah yes, nothing could be worse: he was polite to someone the righties mindlessly detest because they're told to.

    Now, cut the crap and end the useless, meaningless embargo. The Cold War, like the Civil War, is over...no matter how much the GOP/Teatrolls want to pretend that they are both ongoing.

    =======

    I agree with your post 100% , yet those like Marco Rubio will find the polite gesture un American.

    December 10, 2013 10:16 am at 10:16 am |
  13. elnuevocicero

    What's the problem? Just Obama saying hello to a fellow communist.

    December 10, 2013 10:16 am at 10:16 am |
  14. Joi Gibson

    The President is a class act. I am sure the Foxbots will go absolutely, foaming-at-the-mouth crazy about this one.

    December 10, 2013 10:17 am at 10:17 am |
  15. Communism is wrong!

    We should not trade with any communist country! It only supports the torture of others! This is not a beatifal moment, it is a signal that communism is acceptable! Obama should have quickly acknowledged him, and then moved on down the line! One can only forgive someone if the person in question asks for it! Castro is a dictator, and continues to make his people live in torture!

    December 10, 2013 10:18 am at 10:18 am |
  16. ST

    Thank you Mr. President.You are a very understanding person. It was about shaking hands only for few seconds and not going as far as inviting him for a Beer Summit.

    December 10, 2013 10:20 am at 10:20 am |
  17. toc7

    Again we are embarrassed by our POTUS

    December 10, 2013 10:21 am at 10:21 am |
  18. The Genius

    Shaking someone's hands means nothing. You can shake someone's hand and still be enemies. Where is Muammar Gaddafi? Condoleezza Rice visited Gaddafi and shook hands with him but what happened afterwards. The USA helped topple the Gaddafi regime.

    December 10, 2013 10:22 am at 10:22 am |
  19. rs

    J'Cincinnati'Redd

    Nothing wrong with a handshake. But,i dont much care for either man. One is the most liberal President since Carter.and the other is a far right loud mouth out to destroy the GOP. Politics is the only thing them two loosers care about.Not the American people who are suffering everyday.
    _____________________________
    Well, only to those on the Right can Obama be called "liberal", for us he is clearly via media at best. As to your other comment: Raul Castro is trying to destroy the GOP? Huh?

    December 10, 2013 10:23 am at 10:23 am |
  20. ThinkAgain

    Cue the RWNJ echo chamber to shout from the hilltops how President Obama is "weak" and "cowtowing" to Communists!

    BTW, why was it OK for Nixon to "open" China (read: begin the process of eliminating living-wage American jobs in exchange for slave-wage Chinese workers), but it's not OK to shake hands and in any way engage Cuba?

    *crickets*

    December 10, 2013 10:23 am at 10:23 am |
  21. patty51

    "Raul Castro was right there. I would say the President of the United States really didn't have much of a choice."

    I swear is there anything that the media will not make excuses for this president.

    December 10, 2013 10:23 am at 10:23 am |
  22. Donnie the Lion

    Good! We need to fix relations between the U.S. and Cuba. That stupidity has gone on long enough.

    December 10, 2013 10:24 am at 10:24 am |
  23. AmericanJoe

    Reconciliation with Cuba is important and should be a goal of every President until it is complete. However, for our President to greet this communist dictator with such enthusiasm is just sad. This dictator oppresses his people and denies them the freedoms that our country has fought and died for to achieve and maintain. All I can say is that if President Obama can greet this dictator in this manner, why can't he cross the aisle and lead his own government to reconciliation? (And I have to say, CNN has fallen all over itself in defending the President this morning. It would be funny if it weren't so disheartening from a journalism perspective.)

    December 10, 2013 10:25 am at 10:25 am |
  24. Robert Camacho

    Reminder: this is a memorial where we all must come together to pay respect. No matter what your political views maybe.

    I praise our President for doing this in memory of Nelson Mandela vision of reconciliation.

    However will said otherwise is not in the right path of History, we must move FORWARD.

    December 10, 2013 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  25. rs

    Well, only to those on the Right can Obama be called "liberal", for us he is clearly via media at best. As to your other comment: Raul Castro is trying to destroy the GOP? Huh?
    ________________________________
    Sorry, CR, I saw your later post- Cruz instead of Castro? :-)

    December 10, 2013 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
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