Obama-Castro Handshake Courtesy – Of No Import: Radio Mambi Crowd

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro during the official memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium on Dec. 10, 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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.

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.

Yet wait:

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:

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.


How much will be made of this greeting among opponents of not only Castro, but also those of Obama?

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.


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