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. Anonymous

    "The Catskinner

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

    Mandela was imprisoned because he was fighting for human rights, which after years of protest they finally won. Cuba and Castro still hold their people captive by their totalitarian regime. Stop posting please.

    December 11, 2013 03:54 am at 3:54 am |
  2. Name Kage

    You guys are really tuff on The Presdent. Wow ........I'm sue he won't be on the Penny.

    December 11, 2013 03:58 am at 3:58 am |
  3. haloguy628

    He's bowing down too. He should apologize and beg for forgivenes next.

    December 11, 2013 04:00 am at 4:00 am |
  4. Lean6

    This kind of ridiculous and typical American hysteria makes it perfectly clear that the American people ask to be trusted with nothing more than tabloid material. Maybe they should make the cool kids sit in one section of diplomatic gatherings and the nerds somewhere else where everyone can point and laugh or shoot spit balls at them.

    December 11, 2013 04:01 am at 4:01 am |
  5. ibuk

    A funeral is a time for respect regardless of who the funeral is for and who attends.

    It is highly disrespectful that this made headlines in the media.

    December 11, 2013 04:02 am at 4:02 am |
  6. John

    It was just a courteous handshake, you obnoxiously rude right-wingers. What a bunch of screaming little girls you all are.

    December 11, 2013 04:04 am at 4:04 am |
  7. Todd

    I don't care why he did it. All I care about is how much it pisses off conservatives. I hope that was his reason. That's good enough for me

    December 11, 2013 04:08 am at 4:08 am |
  8. Mark Pajak

    One is a communist and declares it openly, the other is a communist but he's afraid to admit it because it will ruin his career.

    December 11, 2013 04:09 am at 4:09 am |
  9. jedeisenhower

    If Obama had snubbed Castro, conservatives would have simply switched positions (which they've become very good at over the last few years.) They would have been howling about how Obama is afraid of Castro or how he just showed the world what a "communist" he is by not taking the opportunity to tell him off. Conservatives' knee-jerk criticism to almost anything Obama does or says has made their comments all too predictable and, as a result, all but irrelevant.

    December 11, 2013 04:12 am at 4:12 am |
  10. Harry

    Big deal. Didn't Clinton shake hands with Fidel at the whatever Latin/US/Western Hemisphere/'we're important people' meeting back in the 90s?

    December 11, 2013 04:13 am at 4:13 am |
  11. KG

    There is a time and place for everything. There are no "chance encounters" between the President of the United States and another nation's leader. The Secret Service manages events like this closely. Obama had this planned, and therefore it is grossly inappropriate.

    December 11, 2013 04:15 am at 4:15 am |
  12. liberal lies

    Oh i hate commies but I LOVE their goods. I buy them everyday. Its all over my house and my house representatives are funded by companies that do big business with them. I hate commies anyway.

    December 11, 2013 04:19 am at 4:19 am |
  13. Flora

    Demonizing Cuba and Castro is the most ridiculous thing when we trade and hold diplomatic relations with countries like China. Talk about human rights abuses THERE. The U.S. holding this embargo against Cuba makes it look like a spoiled brat, immature child who cannot accept that not everybody wants to emulate the United States. The Cold War is long over, the U.S. established the embargo because of fears of communism (OMG,because communism has 0 redeeming value and Capitalism is the perfect, most fair system to all)...but today, in 2013, look at the current situation in all the countries around we still have to fear COMMUNISM??? Shaking hands with Castro was the correct thing to do. You cannot pretend to be there, celebrating the life of a man who embodied peace and reconciliation, and then walk passed Castro and ignore him. That would've been a disrespect to the memory of Nelson Mandela.

    December 11, 2013 04:36 am at 4:36 am |
  14. Prophet Bumie

    If its true that the Americans believes in God and trust Him, why can't they reconcile with their enemies?

    December 11, 2013 04:45 am at 4:45 am |
  15. sifto

    unbelievable–some Americans approve of a dictator who suppresses his own people and imprisons without cause–how naive can you be? maybe you would like to live in Cuba....go ahead..

    December 11, 2013 06:22 am at 6:22 am |
  16. Clarke

    Oh for goodness sakes, this was not about a hand shake. Get over it people and be mature adults!

    December 11, 2013 07:09 am at 7:09 am |
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