December 10th, 2013
07:56 AM ET
7 years 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. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA -aka- Take Back The House -aka- No Redemption Votes

    So what? The President has also shaked Hugo Chavez' hand and the world hasn't ended.

    December 10, 2013 08:05 am at 8:05 am |
  2. 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.

    December 10, 2013 08:05 am at 8:05 am |
  3. Marie MD

    About time that the US after allowing Castro to continue to enslave Cubans for decades gets it right.
    We are "friends" with China, Russia and Vietnam. Why not Cuba?
    This moment was also a sign of respect at a world event to honor Mandela. It would be nice if it led to more but I doubt it. Our President did mention citizens unjustly jailed fir true beliefs or perceived beliefs.

    December 10, 2013 08:09 am at 8:09 am |
  4. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    I am so very, very proud of our President.
    President Obama is a true class act, and an honorable and intelligent statesman.
    That handshake and few words exchanged was the appropriate thing to do, and will get you further than any diplomatic maneuver.
    Bien hecho Presidente Obama!!
    Very well done !!!!

    December 10, 2013 08:17 am at 8:17 am |
  5. Rudy NYC

    The right wing conspiracy cultists should have a field with this moment.

    December 10, 2013 08:19 am at 8:19 am |
  6. Gurgyl

    -–absolutely nothing wrong with it.

    December 10, 2013 08:20 am at 8:20 am |
  7. CRizik

    Clinton shook hands with Fidel Castro at the UN in 2000 and the world didn't come to an end.

    December 10, 2013 08:26 am at 8:26 am |
  8. J'Cincinnati'Redd

    Sorry guys,i feel pretty dumb. Wrong Castro. Forgive me. ๐Ÿ˜€

    December 10, 2013 08:27 am at 8:27 am |
  9. Name jk. Sfl. GOP CRUZ lee&rubio 24billion dallar LOSS of your tax money conservatives,the garbage of America.

    A few more years and these Cuban communist , Castro and Cruz and Rubio will be gone from the seen because of their FAILURES!!!!

    December 10, 2013 08:28 am at 8:28 am |
  10. Al-NY,NY

    Good....that'll get the war mongering-tightie righties all bent out of shape. Vietnam and China OK but because of a small minority of fanatics in south florida, this nonsense is STILL going on

    December 10, 2013 08:52 am at 8:52 am |
  11. J Bigelow

    Sometimes a handshakes between leaders can be the start of a wonderful conversation ๐Ÿ™‚

    December 10, 2013 08:54 am at 8:54 am |
  12. Steve Anderson

    Of course, Mandela would have died in prison had he been in Cuba.

    December 10, 2013 09:08 am at 9:08 am |
  13. Mike Wallace

    The only people who would be angry over this are the anti-Capitalist right wingers.

    December 10, 2013 09:09 am at 9:09 am |
  14. Evergreen

    This American's time to work on building a better relationship with one of our closest neighbors. If corporate America can support communist China, why can't We the People support Cuba?

    December 10, 2013 09:21 am at 9:21 am |
  15. He said what????

    Obama loves what happened in Cuba, he wants it to happen here in the USA. And while Obama is grinning from ear to ear I love the look on Castro's face. Very dignified.

    December 10, 2013 09:21 am at 9:21 am |
  16. Karl Marx


    December 10, 2013 09:21 am at 9:21 am |
  17. Government Waste Rules

    They have a lot in common.

    December 10, 2013 09:28 am at 9:28 am |
  18. Une

    What bother me is that some of you accpet it as a done deal. Being from the other side of the pond I undersatnd the legitimacy that this act gives the Cuban goverment. Now with the blessing of our very own "dear Leader" Castro crew can continue the oppresion of the Cuban p[eople.

    December 10, 2013 09:34 am at 9:34 am |
  19. Willy Brown

    It's a funeral for a communist...what do you expect? Every communist is there and shaking's a reunion...

    December 10, 2013 09:34 am at 9:34 am |
  20. pitt04

    What a beautiful man Barack Obama is.

    December 10, 2013 09:35 am at 9:35 am |
  21. WilliamG

    Our President did a respectful thing and gesture. I know the right wingers are upset and probably will talk about it on Fox News. What President Obama did was called showing mutual respect, doesn't mean he agrees with everything Castro stands for but you never know what benefit this could be to improving relations between the two countries. I wish these Right Winger War promoters would just get over themselves and stop trying to push war!

    December 10, 2013 09:35 am at 9:35 am |
  22. The Real Tom Paine

    First of all, it was a funeral for a widely-respected world leader: what should he have done, punched him? Second, Mandela's legacy was reconciliation and moving forward, not wallowing in the past.

    December 10, 2013 09:40 am at 9:40 am |
  23. The Right Left

    My dream is to see Cuba as our neighbor and not an enemy. For too long Cuba was used as a Communist boogy man by rightwing scare mongers. These same people were eager to do business with China for big profits, but did not see the same profits in Cuba. Let's stop the hate and anger around us and move forward in this world without the extreme right wing of our country.

    December 10, 2013 09:43 am at 9:43 am |
  24. smith

    The right thing to do and it honored the beliefs that Mandela had. However, I do seem to remember micheal moore and the liberals up in arms about GWB shaking hands with the Saudi king.

    December 10, 2013 09:43 am at 9:43 am |
  25. Rudy NYC

    Government Waste Rules

    They have a lot in common.
    By "they", I will assume that you mean extreme right wing cultists. The cultists want a small government, which Cuba has. The cultists want a government that spends as little as possibel on the people, which Cuba does. The cultists want a government that stays out of foreign affairs, which Cuba also does. See? Castro and right wing cultists share a lot in common.

    December 10, 2013 09:43 am at 9:43 am |
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