Stop Pretending the Obama-Castro Handshake Meant Anything


The most memorable moments of Nelson Mandela's memorial on Tuesday had little to do with the legacy of the South African leader: three heads of state took a selfie, an unintelligible sign-language interpreter stole the show, and Barack Obama shook Raúl Castro’s hand. Though all three incidents sparked indignation, the unexpected meeting between the leaders of the U.S. and Cuba provoked outright hysteria among U.S. Republicans.

"Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake," scolded Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-born congresswoman. "But when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raúl Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant."

Not to be outdone, John McCain compared the incident to Nelson Chamberlain shaking the hand of Adolf Hitler. Ted Cruz made his disapproval of the Cuban leader clear by walking out of Mandela's memorial service when it was Castro's turn to speak.

Criticism of the overblown reactions was swift. On Tuesday, Jon Stewart mocked the hypocrisy of criticizing the Castro regime for holding political detainees when we maintain our own abusive prison on Cuban soil. Others have noted that our leaders have routinely shaken hands with heads of state that abuse human rights. To wit:

1. FDR yukked it up with Josef Stalin at Yalta. (Handshake not pictured)

2. Though he shook hands with Mao, Nixon's visit to China is now viewed by most as a good thing.

3. Ronald Reagan's envoy, Donald Rumsfeld, was warmly welcomed by then-U.S. ally Saddam Hussein.

4. George W. Bush was one of several U.S. presidents to support Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. 

5. Bush holding hands with then-Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is perhaps the most disturbing one in this lot.

6. Obama and the since-departed Gaddafi shake hands.

The blowup over the Obama-Castro handshake is not just another silly overreaction by Republicans; it is emblematic of a position that is outright damaging to our foreign policy in the hemisphere.

Make no mistake, the Castro regime is responsible for grave abuses against human rights and democracy. But the unyielding attitude exemplified by influential lawmakers like Ros-Lehtinen, McCain, and Cruz has prevented our foreign policy toward Cuba from evolving since the 1960s. This has entrenched, not weakened, the Castros. Tellingly, one of Cuba's most prominent dissidents, Yoani Sánchez, strongly opposes the more than 50-year old U.S. embargo on the island, asserting that it only serves to prop up the government by providing them with an easy excuse for the country's economic problems:

"The five decade prolongation of the 'blockade' has allowed every setback we've suffered to be explained as stemming from it, justified by its effects … The exterior blockade has strengthened the interior blockade."

A handshake is not "propaganda coup," it is our stubborn adherence to playing out the Cold War while the rest of the world has moved on.

The U.S. can promote its agenda more influentially through engagement than through isolation. It was John McCain who, as a senator, provided President Clinton the political cover to end the embargo against communist Vietnam in 1994 and to subsequently normalize diplomatic relations. Recently, the Cuban government has begun a series of market-oriented reforms. Our priority, akin to McCain's Vietnam stance, should be to engage leaders to take further steps towards economic and political freedom in Cuba, not staying mired in the past.

It is more than our relationship with Havana that is on the line. The next Summit of the Americas – the only gathering of all the democratically elected leaders of the hemisphere – is slated to take place in 2015. But there are doubts whether or not it will happen. Latin American countries insist that Cuba must be invited to the next Summit or they will not attend. The U.S. maintains, correctly, that the Summit was originally envisioned as a forum for democratic governments. Some compromise must clearly be reached. So as long as our stance remains non-negotiable, our relationships with our hemispheric partners stand to deteriorate.

Positively, there are signs that change may be on the horizon. Both the Castro and Obama administrations have eased travel restrictions between the two countries, and in the all-important swing state of Florida, there is increasing appetite for engagement. Although over 60% of the Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County support the embargo, the figure drops precipitously — to roughly 40% — for those under 44 years-old.

Though a vested anti-Castro lobby remains, a new generation of Cuban-Americans may finally signal a new era between Havana and Washington. More bilateral cooperation and a concerted effort from both governments to improve human rights and democracy; now that is something Nelson Mandela would have loved to have seen.