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. jon wilson

    Go over to Fox News and read the comments there. You'd think Obama gave Castro the keys to the White House or something.

    December 10, 2013 03:19 pm at 3:19 pm |
  2. The Catskinner

    Americans are hopeless. Get over the Cuba, Cold War thing and join the 21st century. Mandela did.

    December 10, 2013 03:39 pm at 3:39 pm |
  3. PeterD

    President Obama is Betrayal for Free Market Capitalistic Democratic Society and therefore He is a Traitor for American Values.

    December 10, 2013 03:44 pm at 3:44 pm |
  4. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Any particualr reason why you won't post my responses to Fair is Fair cnn?
    She claims that the President spoke more about himself in his eulogy to Mandela than he did about Mandela himself.
    Spoken like someone who obviously neither heard the speech nor read it's transcript.
    An innocuous answer to an inciteful comment, and yet you felt it necessary to allow the same anwer to pe posted by someone else.
    What gives cnn? You want an exchange of ideas in this forum or do you prefer to keep everyone in their assigned "boxes"?
    Quite puzzling....

    December 10, 2013 03:47 pm at 3:47 pm |
  5. Anonymous

    I'm trying to think of the embargo in terms of the divestment movement against South Africa in the 90s. I'm pretty sure thatI read where S.A. actually built up its weapons infrastructure when it couldn't get rockets and planes from outside the country.

    I think divestment mattered in the large scheme of things...being on the right side of history and all...but I don't know if it specifically helped end apartheid. I'd like to read a biography of Frederik Willem de Klerk, who shared the Nobel Prize with Mandela.

    Anyway, does it make sense to continue the embargo against Cuba when we have hundreds of billions of dollars in trade with China? With all due respect to the Cuban-American politicians and their pet issue, will they take a stance on human rights in China or is that third rail too hot to touch?

    Can we get an unbiased report on the issues remaining between the two countries and on a path to better relations?

    December 10, 2013 03:47 pm at 3:47 pm |
  6. Dominican mama 4 Obama


    Sorry guys,i feel pretty dumb. Wrong Castro. Forgive me.
    No worries! 😉

    December 10, 2013 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  7. Anonymous

    Did King Pinocchio apologize for the "Bay of Pigs" incident?

    December 10, 2013 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  8. Gary

    I'm sure Hanity will report that Obama appoligised for Kennedy's actions.

    December 10, 2013 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  9. Rudy NYC

    tony b

    one communist shaking another communist's hand – what is the big deal?
    The right wing didn't get all twisted in knots when Reagan shook hands with Gorbachev. The volume inside of the stadium was LOUD and noisy. Besides, Castro appears to be seated, and it looks a lot like a wheelchair in this picture. Pres. Obama is probably bending down to carry on a conversation.

    December 10, 2013 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  10. conservativevoices

    It figures... one man who hates America shaking hands with another man who hates America.

    December 10, 2013 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  11. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    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
    Thank you for that summarization John. Let's not forget inspiring and supporting the removal of Ghadaffi in Lybia, and of course ridding the world of one osama bin laden (non caps intended).
    The Nobel Peace Prize committee were indeed men of vision and so is our President.

    December 10, 2013 03:59 pm at 3:59 pm |
  12. paul

    I believe there is great freedom in forgiving

    December 10, 2013 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  13. Kurt

    Oh bloody hell! CNN and apparently most of you out there BELIEVE Obama actually knew this was Castro???

    Watch the video again...pause if need be...after he shakes his hand, he starts to move to the next person and Castro has to stop him and tell him who he is, 'I'm Raul Castro' can easily be seen being said. Obama is just moving through people like he normally would, careless as to who it is he's shaking hands with. It's what any president would do.

    Obama probably doesn't even know what Raul Castro looks like for someone's sake.

    But hey, the whitehouse can spin this like they want...its a beautiful moment for them. Any president would have done the same thing however...just start grabbing and's a nervous trait of the presidency.

    December 10, 2013 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  14. sly

    Ho ho ho – this really makes the racists get their panties in a bun.

    Hey Ignorant Republicans (oxymoron) – ever hear of Nixon and Mao? Gorby and Bush?

    Anyone wondering why the TeaBillieKKK's lose every time? Dumb as a board.

    Thank the Good Lord we have President Obama – who wins at everything he tries. American's are winners.

    December 10, 2013 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  15. Gary


    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.

    Thats right Manny, Obama has respect from world leaders and citizins from all countries. The only ones left in the world with hate are Republicans.

    December 10, 2013 04:10 pm at 4:10 pm |
  16. neastsider

    B the posts here, the extreme right wingnutz are going crazy over a handshake, they're peeing in their pants and in their excrement can't hold it in.

    December 10, 2013 04:15 pm at 4:15 pm |
  17. Friends

    Obama thug, Castro thug. Obama should go hang out with Dennis Rodman and Kim jong-un

    December 10, 2013 04:20 pm at 4:20 pm |
  18. Scott

    Obama's Obamacare works IF President Obama can carve away $300 Billion a year of American's money to give to Gig Insurance companies, money that had been earmarked for new car and new home purchases. Forget the car and home, those purchases go away under Obama's Obamacare plan, and Big Insurance, Obama's friends, skim 20% off the top.

    December 10, 2013 04:22 pm at 4:22 pm |
  19. Terry

    Mr Obama, class act! maybe one day that one simple handshake may be the start of change! From you northern neighbour!! As for the Republiicans........get a grip was a memorial service for god's sake....for an amazing man that promoted a peaceful resolution to serious problems. Obama didn t invite Castro over for supper!!! This is why you have such a bad reputation...and really...except for a are all pretty dangerous and out of touch!!

    December 10, 2013 04:31 pm at 4:31 pm |
  20. Luke,AZ

    President Obama is the greatest president of our times. Mr. President, know that you have the support of the people .

    December 10, 2013 04:32 pm at 4:32 pm |
  21. carlos

    Our government's own policies have kept the Castros in power for more than sixty years. A boat load of Chevy parts would have ended that regime years ago.

    December 10, 2013 04:55 pm at 4:55 pm |
  22. ChrisM

    Hahaha, the Foxfaux news trolls are out in force. Maybe their heads will explode soon!

    December 10, 2013 05:03 pm at 5:03 pm |
  23. Iamnotfooled

    More and more I believe President Obama is worthy of his Nobel Peace Prize. Thank you President Obama Peace is the only way to go. Not war. He can get more done with a handskake then with a snob.

    December 10, 2013 05:21 pm at 5:21 pm |
  24. EXFL

    The right's continued support for the Cuban blockade has nothing to do with communism. If it did, they would blockade trade with China. It has nothing to do with oppression of civil rights. If it did, they would blockade trade with Saudi Arabia. It is all about getting donations from wealthy right-wing Cuban exiles in Miami. It is time to normalize relations with Cuba. If we did that, they would quickly be come more capitalistic AND more open to change.

    December 10, 2013 05:22 pm at 5:22 pm |
  25. Anonymous

    First of all, Obama is not a Communist. He may be a socialist, but he sucks at being one so I am glad that he has never officially called himself one. Second, it is proper for world leaders to shake hands. Common peasants like all of us may not understand, but in the world of politics if we ever expect to have any kind of cordial conversation with people who do not align themselves with the U.S., then we need to be cordial and lead by example. Its like killing your enemies with kindness sort of thing. they are professionals for being able to shake hands despot our extremely apposing views. This is what professionalism looks like instead of ignoring Castro and acting like a little baby. Its time for the American mentality to grow up and improve itself.

    December 10, 2013 05:34 pm at 5:34 pm |
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