Shaking out the Obama-Castro handshake

The handshake between Presidents Obama and Castro at Nelson Mandela's memorial in South Africa didn't cause much of a stir in Cuba. Here's why.

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 on Tuesday.

In Cuba, today’s handshake between leader Raúl Castro and US President Barack Obama was a non-event.

That’s because official state TV and Granma, the Cuban Communist Party’s official newspaper, omitted the salutation from its coverage of former South African President Nelson Mandela’s memorial ceremony. [Editor's note: subsequent broadcasts did include footage of the handshake.]

While the handshake quickly went viral, lighting up media sites worldwide, Cuban blogger Yaoni Sánchez was quick to point out on Twitter that government-controlled TV stations failed to even show the encounter, much less hypothesize what it symbolizes for Cuba-US relations.

If Cuba’s press ignored the handshake, should we also be wary of staring too hard at the tea leaves?

“It is probably unwise to read too much into Obama’s handshake with Raúl Castro,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “To have refused to greet Castro – especially at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service – would have stood out as small-minded, and completely at odds with Mandela’s generosity of spirit.”

Mr. Shifter highlights that, after the handshake, Mr. Obama pointedly criticized governments that do not tolerate dissent from their own people, a veiled reference to Cuba, China, and Zimbabwe, whose leaders were all in attendance.

“The Obama administration is open to improving relations with Havana, and this mostly symbolic gesture underscores that openness, but there is a long way to go before one can talk about a meaningful thaw,” says Shifter.

The handshake shakeout is likely to garner mixed reactions from Cubans: with left-leaning Cubans enthused to see any potential warming that could lift economic sanctions, while right-leaning Cubans push back against any friendliness toward the Castro government, according to Shifter. Miami-based blog Babalu, which is written by Cuban-Americas, for one, criticized Obama for lending “credence and recognition to a vile and bloody dictatorial regime.”

Here’s a video of the handshake, which shows Obama approaching Castro and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Brazil has cast itself as a protector of the island nation and a mediator between Latin America and the US. The last time Cuba’s leader shook hands with a sitting US president was more than a decade ago, when Fidel Castro bumped into Bill Clinton at the United Nations in 2000. Nothing came of what Mr. Clinton’s aides dismissed as a “chance encounter.”

Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, says there may be something more to today’s handshake. Mr. Mandela was a peacemaker who openly embraced former Cuban leader Fidel Castro (who handed leadership to his brother Raúl in 2008).

“Mandela represented a policy that Obama talked about during his election campaign but has failed to deliver,” says Mr. Birns. “It is almost as if Mandela has reached from the grave and committed one more act that he’s been so richly praised for.” 

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