Updated at 10:10, 10:43 and 11:03 am EST
A handshake is just a handshake.
Still, it’s enough to set off the most fervent opponents of one partner, or the other.
President Barack Obama shook Cuban President Raul Castro’s hand today at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, where they and other leaders assembled to pay respects to Nelson Mandela. President Bill Clinton before them had shaken former President Fidel Castro’s hand at the United Nations in 2000. All this despite a lack of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the nearby island nation of the brothers Castro, and the continuing imprisonment of political prisoners — notably, now, American Alan Gross.
In a packed stadium where South Africans honored the memory of a leader who refused to retaliate against those who imprisoned him for many years, it wouldn’t do for an American president passing the Cuban president to withhold his hand — indeed Obama moved swiftly past a greeting which Castro appeared eager to extend. Sort of like the greeting Obama extended to the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, except that however fraught Washington relations with Caracas may be, the five-and-a-half decades of division between the U.S. and Cuba cannot compare in their implications for American politics.
It was, for sure, a handshake seen ’round the world.
— BBC Breaking News (@BBCBreaking) December 10, 2013
Amid signs of the potential for an easing of relations between the two nations, a simple handshake is likely to stir as much speculation in some quarters in Washington as resentment along Miami’s Calle Ocho.
Radio Mambi in Miami, where any acknowledgement of Castro authority has been politically poison for a generation of exiles, is putting the handshake to a vote of its listeners:
— Radio Mambi (@radiomambi710) December 10, 2013
And the early returns from the certainly unscientific radio survey of Miami listeners may be a sign of changing times in and of itself: 56 percent calling the handshake a gesture of protocol of no importance. Guaranteed: That number wouldn’t have looked like that if Clinton were shaking Fidel Castro’s hand in 1994.
Castro handshake faux outrage on right ridiculous in own right. But don’t forget Obama carried Cuban vote in FL. The politics are changing.
— David Plouffe (@davidplouffe) December 10, 2013
— Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) December 10, 2013
How much will be made of this greeting among opponents of not only Castro, but also those of Obama?
Is Obama shaking Raul Castro’s hand the next Obama greets Hugo Chavez or the next Obama bows to Saudi King?
— Sam Stein (@samsteinhp) December 10, 2013
Ultimately, this brief pressing of flesh probably said far more about the day at hand than it did about either the past or future of the U.S. and the Castros. Obama spoke today about the continuing imprisonment of political prisoners around the world, and he spoke, too, of how Mandela invited those who imprisoned him to his inauguration as president.
— Donna Brazile (@donnabrazile) December 10, 2013