In this image from TV, US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at the FNB Stadium in Soweto, South Africa, in the rain for a memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013.

Obama shakes hands with Castro. Should he have snubbed Cuban leader?

Cuba's Raúl Castro was in the meet-and-greet line of world leaders assembled in Johannesburg for the Nelson Mandela memorial service, and Obama shook his hand. What have other US presidents when facing communist leaders?

President Obama in Johannesburg on Tuesday eulogized Nelson Mandela as a towering figure who fought poverty and discrimination with struggle and shrewdness.

“We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace,” said Mr. Obama.

But it was Obama’s own action that produced a flurry of quick news reports back in the US on Mr. Mandela’s memorial service. As he made his way down a line of world leaders gathered to honor the great anti-apartheid leader, Obama shook hands with Cuba’s Raúl Castro.

The cold war history of strained relations between the US and the communist island to its south remains potent more than half a century after Raúl’s brother Fidel seized power. Many conservatives in the US reacted quickly and harshly to the handshake. Some noted that the taller Obama even seemed to bow to the shorter Raúl Castro.

“For those who believe in human rights and liberty, the sight of our president bounding up some stairs to energetically shake hands with Raúl Castro, dictator of Cuba, was more than a little unsettling – regardless of the circumstance,” wrote John Nolte on the right-leaning

Others noted that the handshake might not go over well in south Florida, where Cuban-Americans remain a dominant political force, and that Mr. Castro himself seemed pretty pleased with the moment.

“From Reuters report: ‘Castro smiled as Obama shook his hand’.... And yet Obama declined to attend [conservative British Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher’s funeral,” tweeted Fox News host Todd Starnes.

Democrats replied that a handshake with no policy change equals mere protocol. At this point, there is no sign the Obama administration is planning sweeping changes in its Cuba policy.

The White House has allowed cultural trips to Cuba and other means of personal engagement, but the overall framework of the US embargo and travel restrictions remains in place.

This policy itself is counterproductive and immoral, according to Slate economic writer Matt Yglesias. That’s what people should be focusing on, he writes, instead of a handshake.

“Everyone knows this policy doesn’t work, but nobody wants to admit it,” Mr. Yglesias writes Tuesday.

Liberals even laughed at the uproar with some saying (sarcastically) that the handshake was a secret sign signaling the socialist takeover of the US.

But for better or worse, presidential protocol remains a powerful symbol easily used for partisan purposes. Conservatives opposed to Obama have long complained that he seems too deferential to some foreign leaders. This is just the latest in a line of perceived missteps that include Obama “bowing” to Saudi King Abdullah and former Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Whether Obama actually bowed in these instances – both of which involved shorter foreign leaders – is open to interpretation, noted Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler in 2011 after the Mitt Romney campaign made the kowtow charge.

And Republican presidents have had their own greeting controversies, noted Mr. Kessler. Richard Nixon gave a bit of a bow to Emperor Hirohito of Japan in 1971, despite the fact that Hirohito had served as his nation’s monarch in World War II.

And in 1972, Nixon shared smiling handshakes with Chinese communist dictator Mao Tse Tung. Of course, that was part of his famous visit to China, which announced an about-face in US policy toward normal relations.

We’d like to make two final notes about the Castro handshake. First, Bill Clinton preceded Obama here, as he did in the Oval Office. President Clinton shook hands with Fidel Castro himself in 2000 after a United Nations luncheon in New York City. Second, perhaps Raúl Castro was listening closely to Obama’s speech on Tuesday, and was stung by a line that could well have been aimed at him.

“There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with [Mandela’s] struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people,” said Obama.

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