December 10th, 2013
07:56 AM ET
4 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. Beatlearl

    A good,mature and civilized move by President Obama toward the leader of Cuba,but you can bet the right-wing echo chamber is going bonkers over it.

    December 10, 2013 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  2. Steven Brown

    US relations with Cuba are bad because we never went to war against them, as we did against Vietnam, which is now a trading partner.

    December 10, 2013 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  3. Mr. M

    Nice speech. Too bad he doesn't believe a word of it.

    I would love to see all the leaders of the world meet once a month and talk/fight it out. They can keep on pretending that they aren't simply organized crooks, bestowed only with their own self-gratification and the power fools grant them.

    It would be better then all other sporting events combined, and would engage both sports AND politics! C-SPAN and ESPN all in one. They could crown/award and give medals, and have all the pomp and ceremony they want as we the people go on with the living of life, and tune-in to watch their folly for comedy, and the tragedy, that it is for entertainment.

    December 10, 2013 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  4. just me

    doesn't a handshake seal a deal? or they just long lost foreigners "from an island" who happen to share intrests?

    December 10, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  5. Mr. M

    "... was that, or was that not another bow?"

    December 10, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  6. Simplyput

    For those of you that think any Castro is a bad Castro, relax.

    December 10, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  7. Peace Angel

    Good manners It is what our parents and Grand parents taught us so relax. Right wing america would never understand that these are the same people that glorified lynching of Black people and supported apartheid in the USA up to this day.

    December 10, 2013 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  8. Jonathan Jack

    The only way to change dictators... is to embrace them.... Haven't you all heard of "killing them with kindness"

    Hope

    December 10, 2013 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  9. FreeStateDoug

    At least he didn't genuflect...and that's something.

    December 10, 2013 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  10. roro

    Obama did the right thing. It would have been rude to ignore Castro.

    December 10, 2013 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  11. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    toc7

    you are utterly clueless to foreign policy and the shambles Obama has made of it. Asia and the Middle East is becoming unstable and threatening due to Obama's inept foreign policy
    -------------------------------------------------
    The truth is that it is only because of President's Obama approach to foreign policy that we are now able to fly the world over without having to calim Canadian citizenship lest we risk bodily harm.
    The truth is that under this President foreign policy is the ONLY area where RWNJs like yourself cannot put in their grubby littlle hands to start unnecessary wars and cause unnecessary conflicts with countries that have done nothing to us.
    Diplomacy and the support of an international coalition by this administration has kept our men and women in uniform out of someone else's battlefields.
    The truth is that in typical right-wing fashion you're engaging in projecting your ignorance unto others.
    President Obama is free to travel the world over. There is no foreign tribunal waiting to arrest him and NO ONE has yet to throw their shoes at him.

    December 10, 2013 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  12. Andrew

    HEY! RIGHT WINGERS! Reagan shook hands with Gorbachev, does that make Reagan a communist too?

    December 10, 2013 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  13. Natalia

    Julius Nyerere made Nelson Mandela media tend to forget

    December 10, 2013 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  14. Shoe Fiend

    Nothing wrong with a display of proper decorum. I applaud his gesture. It would have been highly rude of him to ignore the man.

    December 10, 2013 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  15. sly

    Thank God we have President Obama who looks to the future.

    A very intelligent and successful President is our best hope for establishing good relations with our neighbors.

    Intelligent people don't go to war with their neighbors.

    December 10, 2013 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  16. mannyv

    He shakes Castro's hand and deals with Iran, but he's incapable of doing the same with Republicans. Apparently to get on Obama's short list you have to oppress and kill millions of your own people.

    December 10, 2013 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  17. Pastor Paul c.

    Good job Obama. Raul will be disturbed now dat Obama told him to his face, ' i care for ur people's freedom. Loose them (cubans) from the shackles of communism, and let them go about business freely'
    Thanks Obama, i love u for that. Gods bless u

    December 10, 2013 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  18. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Didn't Obama tell Putin that he – Obama – would be "more flexible" after the last election? Yes. How has that worked out?
    -------------------------------------------------
    Quite well thank you, lest you forget Putin was quite willing tobring his stepchild Syria under control vis-a-vis it's nuclear capabilities.
    It was Putin and Kerry under the auspices of President Obama that hammered out the agreement.
    Thanks for asking.

    December 10, 2013 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
  19. PDG

    Obama was being polite and demonstrated what good people do. Jose Martí would have done the same thing. Yes Castro is a dictator, Obama is showing him the way he could be.

    December 10, 2013 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
  20. Never Gone' Happen MittensRobme

    Americans buy Chinese goods, sell China our seaports and US manufacturing has all but moved over to China, even GW Bush fought two wars on China's credit that he didn't pay for...yet COMMUNIST CHINA is a friend to US Big Businesss myet my righty tighies tea potty freaks are getting their panties all tied up in a bunch because of a handshake with mere Cuba?!!.

    President Obama should give Raul a hug & a kiss all year long....makes my day!!!!

    December 10, 2013 12:15 pm at 12:15 pm |
  21. Len

    So tired of the hatred and bigotry in this country. We will be a third world country very soon because of lack of compassion and intelligience.

    December 10, 2013 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  22. MS

    Why wouldn't he shake hands with like-minded people?

    December 10, 2013 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  23. patty51

    Will we now hear that the President did not know it was Castro or was not told by his aides he was Castro? The president was just showing respect for Mandela legacy....I could believe this if the president was not taking his own picture at a funeral for the man he went there to show respect. Three years can not come fast enough.

    December 10, 2013 12:20 pm at 12:20 pm |
  24. Charles

    Republican perpetuate the ideaology of fear and seperation, Democrats look for ways to move beyond the past.

    December 10, 2013 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
  25. Brian

    Nice to see. Perhaps the US will finally drop their grudge against Cuba. If they can do business with China, they can do business with Cuba.

    And of course you have the GOP nuts screaming socialism and communism, as always not knowing what those words mean. I wonder if they know the rest of the Western World is laughing at them.

    December 10, 2013 12:29 pm at 12:29 pm |
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