At the memorial service for Nelson Mandela yesterday, President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raúl Castro and exchanged a few words, and this has caused somewhat of a stir in the media. Sometimes a presidential handshake is just a handshake, but sometimes it is more than that. If the recipient of the handshake is a member of a dynastic tyranny that has been oppressing an entire nation for 54 years, then it is not just a handshake.
Moreover, Obama’s handshakes are not just handshakes anymore because he has made a bit of news in the way he greets foreign leaders with his apparent bowing to some (here and here) and his encounter with Hugo Chávez at the United Nations, which some considered overly friendly and jovial given Chávez’s invective against the United States. The repeated instances of these rather theatrical greetings provoke speculation. And now that he is keeping his campaign pledge to reach out to our enemies and try to talk them into being peaceful supporters of good order in the world, it is fair to ask what he intends with these greetings when he encounters these types of leaders personally. Is it a signal that he is opening the United States up to them? It is supposed to mean he intends on initiating a new era in U.S. relations with a given country?
It is certainly fair to say, as some in the media have in defending the president, that the president of the United States cannot bypass Castro on his way to his seat, greeting everyone but Castro. It would be rude, detract from the decorum of the ceremony, and make himself the object of attention rather than the great man who has departed this world. But I don’t think this is the reason Obama greeted Castro. First, he has little to fear from the media criticizing him for not showing much warmth for Castro; they have a habit of going out of their way to protect him. And after all, a little while later Obama was seen taking a "selfie" with the British and Danish prime ministers. Decorum was not at the top of the list of concerns apparently.
So we are not out of line in closely examining this event and trying to interpret what the president might be telling the world. Watching the footage, I see the president bound up the steps and go straight to Raul Castro and appear to very intentionally greet him (again with somewhat of a bow, though Castro is considerably shorter than the president). It is not a polite but quick handshake; rather, they exchange words, twice it seems. That is, the president appears to initiate the greeting and is speaking to Castro as he approaches him. As they are clasping hands for a few seconds, Castro responds, then the president speaks again, and then Castro once more. Finally, the president moves on to the Brazilian president.
So, we can ask, why didn’t the president, if decorum required a handshake, simply make it quick and offer little or no talk at all? He could have made rather a show of grasping lightly and quickly the bloodied hand of a dictator and then moving on with some flair to President Dilma Rousseff. That would have prevented anyone from saying he was rude while at the same time sending a signal that the leader of the United States doesn’t have any warm words and embraces for those who torture, kill, and abuse their citizens for political reasons.
It is fair to suggest that Obama wanted Castro, the world, and both Democrats and Republicans back home who don’t share his rosy view of the potential for a thaw in U.S. relations with the Castros to know that the president is going to change U.S. posture and treat Castro like he has treated Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. If this is so, and it is a legitimate speculation, then we are probably in for a new round of cozying up to tyrants, this time in Cuba, while the dissidents in the jails and their families who go without food rations or government services continue to suffer. To their misery is now added insult at the hands of the leader who should be their greatest champion. Should we expect in the not too distant future an invitation to tea at the White House for Kim Jong Un?
Some insist that the president’s line in his speech about those who don’t practice Mandela’s famous tolerance for his critics is evidence that the president was telling off Castro and other dictators. I can’t buy it. I’m glad he said that, of course, but it would have been much more effective if he’d not shown such deference and warmth toward someone so deserving of that rebuke. The sting of the rebuke is made weaker by the gesture. Yes, gestures mean a lot. A phone call to the leader of a threshold nuclear power followed by a total reversal of U.S. opposition to a nuclear-armed Iran does not show America’s resolve toward its enemies, nor does it comfort the victims of those enemies. And it certainly doesn’t comfort allies such as the Saudis and the Israelis to name only a few.
Obama is convinced that his personality along with his strategy of reaching out will change the hearts and minds of brutal dictators who have gotten power and kept it by killing and oppressing whomever they have to. He is wrong, as Rouhani, Kim, Mohamed Morsy, and Bashar al-Assad have demonstrated, and now probably Castro will have a chance to prove it too.