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. TONE

    @MS
    like minded people like who ignorant right wingers, your kind are racist and i will put a glove on to shake your hand that is how contaminated right wingers are

    December 10, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  2. Flagship, NC

    Good manners It is what our parents and grand parents taught us.

    December 10, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  3. Chappy Sinclair

    Obama shaking hands with Raul Castro today. The Castro brothers put thousands of Cuban troops in Africa back in the 70s and 80s. Obama saluting Mandela's communist friends..

    December 10, 2013 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  4. Chris

    Everything matters in politics. Everything.....

    December 10, 2013 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  5. evsantiago

    I just cant believe the abundance of ignorant people in this blessed country. God please share the distribution with other countries please.

    December 10, 2013 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  6. TONE

    Right wingers are pulling their hairs and teeth out oops i forgot a lot of them do not teeth in their mouths i guess scratching their gums.

    December 10, 2013 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  7. VoteForPedro

    He shook his hand, because he thought he was the parking valet guy.

    December 10, 2013 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  8. Charlie

    Yeah, and they killed Brian on Family Guy. What is this world coming to?

    December 10, 2013 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  9. ora pike

    obama even makes carter look good-the difference--carter did not lie. obama even uses mandela's death to try and make himself look better-38 times he lied to us on obamacare, it was the video, nobody told me.

    December 10, 2013 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  10. paul reynolds

    Repeal Care, Peace and Recovery!!
    Restore War, Hate and Recession – Vote Republicon 2014.!!

    December 10, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  11. Mary

    It is just a hand shake people. Get over the hatred of each other. This is Mendela's legacy of putting hatred aside and reconcile with one another. Although, it is a personal hand-shake; Obama is not advocating reconciliation between USA & Cuba with the gesture. Don't kill yourselves on this one. Maybe someday, all these hatefull individuals will realize it is not worth a thing by hating someone. God bless you all.

    December 10, 2013 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  12. Republiker

    More pandering and bowing down to those who call us the enemy. Obama is more proof when you waste your vote on the Democrat Freeloader Party, we ALL lose.

    December 10, 2013 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  13. Anita

    What too many forget is that HE is watching & listening. And even worse ~ they don't even remember "forgive us our debts as we forgive others". HE forgives but mankind doesn't have to???? Go figure!

    December 10, 2013 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  14. sly

    This is what a high quality leader does – Thank you again President Obama! Time to move past 1960.

    December 10, 2013 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  15. tet1953

    Big deal. One needn't be uncivil in order to maintain one's priciples.

    December 10, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  16. Budley

    What have we accomplished with the restrictions.If we had dropped them all and opened Cuba up to tourism and Capitalism
    we would have a good neighbor 90 miles away.

    December 10, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  17. Marcus

    Some people on here need to know what Communism is. It's the Communist party that runs Cuba. It is a Socialist country. It would hurt for you to read Marx writings before making asinine statements. It makes you look unintelligent.

    December 10, 2013 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  18. KC

    ok really people??? It was a simple handshake. it's called having manners. He shook hands with most if not all the other dignitaries there. Once AGAIN...much ado about nothing.

    December 10, 2013 01:38 pm at 1:38 pm |
  19. PushingBack

    It's just a handshake, you know, what our mothers taught us to do to be polite. There is no other subtext here!

    December 10, 2013 01:38 pm at 1:38 pm |
  20. lm

    Those who disagree with the handshake can neither respect and admire Mandela. Mandela thought us respect and more. Would you be happier if Castro wouldn't have extended his hand? The hypocrisy and cynicism of our society.

    December 10, 2013 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  21. richard in texas

    Republicans and conservatives alike are screaming Socialist /communist lover while they continue to push Corporate- FASCIST agenda in their own country.Jesus help us.

    December 10, 2013 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  22. larry

    What the heck was he suppose to do spit on it instead of shake it? Geeze people get a life. Its called manners and being civil. Im a Republican but a human first!

    December 10, 2013 01:51 pm at 1:51 pm |
  23. liberal disease

    Obama is envious of the power castro has over his people,he wishes he was him..

    December 10, 2013 01:52 pm at 1:52 pm |
  24. Bob

    He just rushed over there to show some love to a dictator.

    December 10, 2013 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  25. DarqueSide

    This is about honoring Nelson Mandela, who believed in and demonstrated forgiveness and civil discourse. President Obama's gesture is in keeping with the day.

    December 10, 2013 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
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