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. BTLProd

    Remember that Latino vote you Democrats were so sure you had sewn up? There goes a very important block in a very important state, when it comes to electoral votes.

    December 10, 2013 06:22 pm at 6:22 pm |
  2. luchik33

    1, An embargo makes only the Cuban people suffer
    2. It clearly hasn't worked since its been implemented for 53 years and there hasn't been a single major uprising in the country
    3. The Arab spring saw an overthrow of numerous dictators without any embargo by the U.S.
    4. The USSR collapsed only after U.S. and the Soviet Union started to NORMALIZE their relations
    5. China is a communist country, why doesn't the U.S. put an embargo against it?
    6. U.S. has supported dozens of bloody dictators around the world for its own interests including Nguema of Guinea, Pinochet of Chile, the Shah of Iran, Deby of Chad, Noriega of Panama, Karimov of Uzbekistan, King of Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, etc. etc.

    I bet you once the U.S. lifts its embargo on Cuba and normalizes itsrelations with Cuba, the government will start introducing liberal reforms and the people will demand even more changes just like happened with the former Soviet Union and all of its satellite states.

    December 10, 2013 06:48 pm at 6:48 pm |
  3. themajorpain

    Goodness? Is he bowing again? Somebody stuff a couple of strapped 2x4s down this guys drawers please.

    December 10, 2013 07:16 pm at 7:16 pm |
  4. cmando

    100,000 people gather, and perhaps 1,000,000,000 watch, as the world honors a man who achieved freedom through peace, celebrates a man with the grace to forgive his political enemies and prison guards, and carves into eternity the name of a man whose courage changed a world.

    So, Obama should mark the day by head slapping a Castro? Marco and Ileana, enjoy your five minutes of what you may see as fame - those of us who honor Mandela see it as five minutes of infamy.

    December 10, 2013 08:05 pm at 8:05 pm |
  5. w l jones

    Some people need take a course in America history they would not only act different also think as well. Their by pull the blinder off.

    December 10, 2013 08:39 pm at 8:39 pm |
  6. Liz the First

    Repugs would much rather have enemies than friends. for folks who call themselves 'christians,' they have a funny way of showing it. they claim to worship the Prince of Peace but never miss a chance to start a war or keep a conflict going. this country is better than the repugs and it's time we kicked the whole worthless party to the curb!

    December 10, 2013 10:08 pm at 10:08 pm |
  7. labman57

    How dare Obama respect and honor Mandela's memory by behaving civilly at late anti-Apartheid leader's funeral.

    Everyone knows that political posturing is far more important - it's how Americans publicly demonstrate our "exceptionalism" to the world.

    December 10, 2013 10:49 pm at 10:49 pm |
  8. wendel

    get over it all you trolls. it was a hand shake given in the spirit of the life being celebrated. Proud of our president and the welcome he got.

    December 10, 2013 11:30 pm at 11:30 pm |
  9. Quincey Craig

    Negative responses to this non-event is just one more bit of evidence that Americans generally have a very small world view. Who could have ever thought that Madeba could forgive / work with De KIerk.
    Wake up people this is what a real statesmen looks like. You do not need to agree with a leaders politics to treat him as the recognized leader he is.
    It would have been a act of childish arrogance to snub him and give him the power he does not possess. This was an
    example of leading by example.

    December 10, 2013 11:33 pm at 11:33 pm |
  10. Gbenga

    That was the right thing to do. We shouldnt only honour great Madiba in words but also in actions. I'm Madiba wl be smiling wherever he is now

    December 11, 2013 01:53 am at 1:53 am |
  11. HarHarHar

    You would think he was holding hands with Saudi Arabian royalty or something....

    December 11, 2013 03:04 am at 3:04 am |
  12. chuck

    The hand shake 'heard around the world'...

    December 11, 2013 03:10 am at 3:10 am |
  13. Jim1973

    I understand keeping Cuba in the doghouse for all these years but times change and we need to get over ourselves. Shaking the brothers hand wasn't all that big a deal, repubs really need to stop over reacting in these matters. You make our party look like Dbags.

    December 11, 2013 03:27 am at 3:27 am |
  14. Jackson

    To refuse a handshake at an event like this would have been the height of rudeness. In this case I think Obama did the right thing.

    December 11, 2013 03:30 am at 3:30 am |
  15. sara

    Fox will finally talking about something other than Benghazi. Wonder if we will see actual head explosions?

    December 11, 2013 03:31 am at 3:31 am |
  16. Robert H

    Obama: "Is Lenin here? I'd like to shake his hand."

    December 11, 2013 03:34 am at 3:34 am |
  17. Oh Good Lord

    How selective we are! How it is this bad yet its totally okay for our govt to cozy up to Saudia Arabian leaders, who kill homosexuals, imprison those kissing in public and do not allow their women to drive cars. We totally suck up to the Chinese govt and buy Chines goods in droves, despite decades of continued abuse of human rights of its citizens.

    I see, when its about oil and cheap products for Walmart its just different. Lol.

    December 11, 2013 03:36 am at 3:36 am |
  18. Kevin Quail

    When did the news become like Seinfeld, a show about nothing? So Obama shook someone's hand at a memorial- big deal. You know who else boycotts Cuba? No one.

    December 11, 2013 03:36 am at 3:36 am |
  19. JJ

    Looks like the farm animals are up in arms at the barn again. Time for some more election tasing in 2014. 🙂

    December 11, 2013 03:37 am at 3:37 am |
  20. Seriously people?

    So let's see...if this was about human rights abuse, why is there no fuss about Obama shaking hands with leaders of Saudia Arabia or China?

    December 11, 2013 03:38 am at 3:38 am |
  21. Name

    Does all american have the same freedom

    December 11, 2013 03:39 am at 3:39 am |
  22. wellhellothere

    Oh brother. Let's make friends with that tiny island, already. Geez.

    December 11, 2013 03:39 am at 3:39 am |
  23. RichardSRussell

    Y'know, if he'd been shaking hands with ARIEL Castro, there'd be reason to get upset, but I see this as a hopeful sign, kind of like Richard Nixon reaching out to Mao Zedong, or Reagan and Gorbachev coming THIS close to getting rid of nuclear weapons forever.

    December 11, 2013 03:43 am at 3:43 am |
  24. mjbrin

    would all of you been as upset if Jesus shook his hand?

    December 11, 2013 03:44 am at 3:44 am |
  25. cd

    Do you know, one of the greatest problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas? Who cares about a handshake, its a handshake, this isnt high school. NO REASON FOR THIS ARTICLE!!!

    December 11, 2013 03:51 am at 3:51 am |
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