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. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    That was the handshake that will be seen around the world, and temporarily blurred the big scarlet "S" on Castro's chest.
    It allowed Raul Castro to look around him when President Obama referenced heads of states present today that boast of their friendship with Mandela while keeping their countrymen silenced and shackled.

    December 10, 2013 10:33 am at 10:33 am |
  2. toc7

    @elnuevocicero. Good comment

    December 10, 2013 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  3. Lizzie

    Rudy NYC, you forgot to tell everyone, that in Cuba the government TELLS you what, when, where and how. Guess you like that......

    December 10, 2013 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  4. david shoup

    A very kind and I hope meaningful gesture. Time to change and a worthy goal. Establish relations. Enough suffering!!

    December 10, 2013 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  5. Mike from CO

    Imagine that, a simple handshake. Sometimes that's all it takes to start something.

    A simple transfer of artifacts may have precipitated a phone call that precipitated a nuclear deal. Look what happens when you treat foreign countries, even your supposed enemies, with even the slightest bit of respect.

    Foreign Policy is the true arena of the President, and love him or despise him, Obama is dang good at it.

    December 10, 2013 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  6. kris

    Obama is so dumb he probably didn't know who he was shaking hands with

    December 10, 2013 10:38 am at 10:38 am |
  7. longtooth

    Obama missed a perfect opportunity to snub Castro, thus taking attention away from the Mandela tribute! He could have earned the love and respect of the right wing, and made the U.S. look petty in the eyes of the world, something we haven't seen since Bush-Cheney. This commie president doesn't understand that the 25%, brainwashed by the 1%, will someday rule the world, but he will see. Oh, yes, he will see!

    December 10, 2013 10:38 am at 10:38 am |
  8. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    @ A True Conservative
    Dusting you and your unprovoked personal attack off my feet, dear.

    December 10, 2013 10:39 am at 10:39 am |
  9. Al-NY,NY

    the clueless GOP sheep response.........Obama shakes hands..."he's a commie who's embarrassing." Obama ignores him..."he's no diplomat. he's clueless." Obama breathes air "how dare he do that"

    December 10, 2013 10:42 am at 10:42 am |
  10. Lynda/Minnesota

    Again we are embarrassed by our POTUS

    Well, actually ... no, I am not embarrassed. But, hey. Don't let me stop you and others from posting your fake nonsense. It is to be expected. And quite droll ... all that pouting. I know. I know. You can't help yourselves.

    Carry on.

    December 10, 2013 10:42 am at 10:42 am |
  11. vrytix

    Would Obama have shaken hands with Raul Castro if Obama faced re-election (and wanted the votes of the overseas Cubans in Florida? No.

    Would he go out of his way to shake hands with a Cuban dictator after being re-elected? Yes. Did VP Gore once avoid shaking hands with the Cuban leader? Yes.

    Didn't Obama tell Putin that he – Obama – would be "more flexible" after the last election? Yes. How has that worked out?

    December 10, 2013 10:43 am at 10:43 am |
  12. Rudy NYC


    Rudy NYC, you forgot to tell everyone, that in Cuba the government TELLS you what, when, where and how. Guess you like that......
    Excuse me, Lizzie. But, it's the right wing in this country continously push social legislation that defines what, when, wheer, how, and who can zoom who.

    December 10, 2013 10:47 am at 10:47 am |
  13. Louis Trujillo

    That hand shack by Obama to Raul Castro signifies respect as a tribute to the memory of Mandela who would have done the same had he been alive.

    December 10, 2013 10:47 am at 10:47 am |
  14. Barbara Keesey

    From one handshake peace can follow. You never know.

    December 10, 2013 10:50 am at 10:50 am |
  15. Mac

    Doesn't show up for Pearl Harbor but gladly goes to Africa to shake hands with a commie dictator who refuses to allow his people to be free. Most be one of Barrys heros!

    December 10, 2013 10:51 am at 10:51 am |
  16. joe

    Another installment of the Obama Foreign Policy Buffoonery. I never thought I'd say this, but where the heck is Biden (self proclaimed foreign policy guru) when you need him. At least Obama didn't bow this time, or give him the green light to enrich uranium...

    December 10, 2013 10:53 am at 10:53 am |
  17. Sally

    For a country that has traded with China for years while human rights abuses persist, it is past time for a change of heart on Cuba. It's a small island nation. Raul is slowly moving toward private ownership and free enterprise at home. The time is now to reward that movement.

    December 10, 2013 10:57 am at 10:57 am |
  18. Larry in Houston

    ""We need to fix relations between the U.S. and Cuba""

    Answer : Yes, we do.... Can you imagine "trading" w/ Cuba ? more tax dollars coming in, & the list goes on . . .
    even the Independents would think this would be a good idea

    December 10, 2013 10:58 am at 10:58 am |
  19. Louis Trujillo

    Leaders may disagree but a hand shake is respect and does not take away that right. That to me was what Obama what he meant in reaching out to Raul Castro.

    December 10, 2013 10:59 am at 10:59 am |
  20. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Raul is slowly moving toward private ownership and free enterprise at home. The time is now to reward that movement.
    Here's another "movement" that needs to be noted and commented on: Raul Castro's body language when President Obama was approaching him.
    It was quite evident that Castro initiated the engagement by leaning forward towards our President in a welcoming gesture. Notice also how Castro extended the exchange by engaging the President just a bit longer than President Obama obviously intended.
    All good things, followed by his very warm and cordial greeting (kiss of both cheeks) graciously received by the president of Brazil.
    The nuances people. Pay attention to the nuances they are just as impacting and important.
    And let's NOT lose sight of the fact that NO ONE felt compelled to throw any shoes!

    December 10, 2013 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  21. sammy750

    President Obama is so classy and knows how to interact with all people and leaders. He will be getting lots of anger from Conservatives and Republicans who don't understand people. They don't even understand the people they represent or suppose to represent. But the election in 2014 will show the Republicans how the American people understood their do nothing policies. Boehner says he is doing what the American people want. He must be talking about just the people in his house hold. He is so far removed from understanding this nation and the people

    December 10, 2013 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  22. rafee

    people will complain about anything instead of trying to resolve issues. we have traded with China for years now while they have multiple sweat shops and President Obama shakes Castro hand it's a problem? Time to move on, this ain't the 60's...

    December 10, 2013 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  23. toc7

    @Linda/Minnesota, 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.

    December 10, 2013 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  24. John the Historian

    President Obama is becoming the president of peace. First he gets the USA out of a failed war in Iraq, puts a deadline to get us out of Afghanistan by 2014, supports the Arab Spring in 2011, stops the use of chemical weapons in Syria. signs a nuclear treaty with Iran and now he is inching the USA towards peace with Cuba. Never forget the USA is the only country that boycotts Cuba. All of latin America, China, and all of Europe have full diplomatic relations with Cuba. Detente helped bring about the end of communism, so will it here. Swords in ploughshares.

    December 10, 2013 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  25. Jean

    Clinton shook hands with Fidel and the world didn't end but the oppression of the Cuban people, who lack basic human freedoms, did not end either. Shaking hands with these dictators legitimizes them when they continue to carry on as if they are doing nothing wrong – this picture will stand in Cuba as Raul's vindication. It's these kinds of photos that closed regimes use to tell their people that the US does not defend them and will not fight for thier freedom. It's these kinds of pictures that are used to convince the oppressed that there is no one to fight for them (at this rate the photos seem to speak the truth).

    December 10, 2013 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9