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. ThisIsNot4U2

    This is why the Teabillies would NEVER make good presidential material. They are ignorant of other nations and they don't know how to act diplomatically...Even with the whole world watching. If you don't believe me...just take a look at some of their SHAMEFUL comments on this page...*smh*...

    December 10, 2013 02:00 pm at 2:00 pm |
  2. LogicReason

    I don't agree with the President on many things, but I don't see what the big deal is. We should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate.

    December 10, 2013 02:00 pm at 2:00 pm |
  3. Blake Levine

    I think this goes a long way even though it is just a simple handshake. It shows that we have respect for this country even though we may not always agree with its acts. By Obama shaking the hand of a leader that we fight a lot with, it begins a start of a change. Change can not happen unless someone starts the process. Obama became the bigger man and decided he would shake the hand of a man that has not always been a good guy.

    December 10, 2013 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  4. Stanton Allaben

    There are those who continue to show dislike, and, yes, hate of our President, who will try to make hay out of this simple gesture of shaking hands with a leader of a country we do not get along with. They should be ignored as they, in the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, know not what they do. Diplomacy is the process, among other things, of trying to reconcile differences, and a hand shake can go a long way to start that process.

    December 10, 2013 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  5. Guil Almeida

    Come on, guys ... Obama was in a funeral of a major figure of the century marked by his fight for peace and reconciliation. That was not a social, political or business event. Suddenly, he finds himself in front of Castro. What do you want him to do? Punch Castro in face? Be rude in front of the world and behave like a spoiled child? Or be civilized and give the world an example of how to separate a tribute to a legend from any political agenda? If anything, this gesture may pave the way for more advances on Obama's political agenda. Wake up, short-sighted conservatives...

    December 10, 2013 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  6. antonella

    i don't want to disappoint anybody. Obama didn't recognize Raul Castro, if you look at the video after they shake hands and Obama is walking away, Raul Castro says: I'm Raul Castro. Look at the video and you will notice it.
    It doesn't really matter that Obama is shaking hand with him, it's a funeral and not a political summit.

    December 10, 2013 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  7. Casual Observer

    It was a handshake. Sheesh! They were not there to negotiate an arms deal, a trade embargo or terrorist attack. They were there with thousands of others to attend a memorial for a great leader. They were being polite and professional. End of Story.

    December 10, 2013 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  8. Neville

    I don't really care that he shook his hand, I just want to know what he's planning to do (if anything) about US citizens locked up abroad there. Funny how those who are "disgusted" by peoples criticism of the handshake never even mention this. Negotiation? Lets see what happens..... probly nothing

    December 10, 2013 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  9. Jeffrey Jones

    Why is the media analyzing the President's hand shake choices. The media is trying to find controversy, shake up old, ancient hatred, conflicts, etc. In a time of sorrow, in the midst of the holidays, with a Pope preaching love...just, in the words of John Lennon, "Let It Be."

    December 10, 2013 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  10. sly

    Is there anyone as ignorant as the TeaBillieKKK Republican party?

    Did Nixon shakes Mao's hand?
    Bush and Gorbashov?

    Heck, TeaBillie's should be furious at Bush for being kind to the Russians, since most German nazi's don't like Russians.

    December 10, 2013 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  11. BO

    Druggies hate democracy and freedom and would rather live under dictatorship and communism.

    December 10, 2013 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  12. Brian

    Welcome to American News. Let's get right down to it and spend 6 hours maticiously picking apart a hand shake. Just forget celebrating the man symbolic of freedom and democracy and one of the president's finest public speeches. Keep drinking the kool-aid America and don't forget to contribute your money to the media monstrocity– Comcast is calling, your $200 montlhy bill is five minutes late!

    December 10, 2013 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  13. Shelley

    What ever happened to " Love your Enemies"?

    December 10, 2013 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
  14. Brian

    Oh, and don't forget to sign up for twitter if you want your comments to be in bigger font in the middle of the page.

    December 10, 2013 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  15. Name barry , o.

    I think president Obama try bringing people together.not just because he want to shak a hands to raul Castro

    December 10, 2013 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  16. Fair is fair

    He already shook the devils hand so what's the big deal

    December 10, 2013 02:54 pm at 2:54 pm |
  17. ora pike

    S. Carolina is voting to stop obamacare in that state by voting that the state will not pay for obamacare that the federal government would have to-a few states doing this could stop this socialistic move for socialized health care. We have a president who was mentored by a card carrying communist and some of us are surprised by government takeover??? YOU CAN KEEP YOUR INSURANCE-YOU CAN KEEP YOUR DOCTOR--IT WAS A VIDEO--NOBODY TOLD ME. GONE WITH THE WIND our great country.

    December 10, 2013 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
  18. Naut

    I doubt Obama even knew who he was.

    December 10, 2013 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
  19. Getoverit

    At least he didn't bow this time.

    December 10, 2013 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  20. tony b

    one communist shaking another communist's hand – what is the big deal?

    December 10, 2013 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
  21. Chukch

    This disconnect is becoming more and more incident because the so-called majority thinking of the world is not the same type of prejudice that existed in the past and so the news reporting has many obvious inconsistencies that is not really connecting. Sometime we really just say, what is this ?

    December 10, 2013 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  22. Name Musonda

    Are you serious. President Obama did the right thing by shaking Castro's hand. He was being watched by the whole world and was at funeral of a person who we admire as person who believed in peace, reconciliation, and respect of other people. What is wrong with you Republicans. When are you going to learn that our president represent our country in whatever he does

    December 10, 2013 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
  23. Sunny

    2:45 PM Listening to the commentary on CNN are NOT getting it: President Obama had just completed a speech for Mandela, who represented creating peace where there has been conflict when he shook Castro's hand... DUH! That is why I voted FOR President Obama!

    December 10, 2013 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
  24. tj don

    Its just a handshake. OBAMA has made his feelings known before regarding the Castro regime.

    December 10, 2013 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  25. carrotroot

    Mandela died this week but instead of focusing on his legacy and what the world can learn for him, the Media outlets here in the US have focused on nothing but shameful and disgusting comments from people on the far Right. Please, we are better than this. Obama shaking Castro's hand is NOT important, and people who see this as a problem need to grow up.

    December 10, 2013 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
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