As he rose to the podium to deliver his speech at the funeral of South African leader Nelson Mandela, President Barack Obama took about 20 seconds to shake hands and greet his Cuban colleague. The fleeting contact of the leaders’ skin prompted wild speculation about what it all might mean. Does this image of the two leaders symbolize the beginning of a new era?
Given the course of U.S.-Cuba relations over the last five decades, it's safe to say the Obama-Castro handshake probably doesn’t mean a whole lot.
That doesn’t mean the moment wasn’t newsworthy. The last such exchange on record took place in 2000, when then-President Bill Clinton shook hands with former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro at the United Nations. The moment wasn’t photographed. As Castro then explained, according to Agence France Presse, “I couldn’t run out to avoid greeting him. It would have been extravagant and rude to do anything else.”
But the reaction is clearly overblown. There’s a logistical reason why the two leaders rarely shake hands. The United States and Cuba don’t maintain official diplomatic relations, meaning the two heads of state don’t visit each other’s countries. It’s usually Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez who gives the Cuba speech at the U.N. General Assembly, rather than Castro. Cuba is barred from participating in the Organization of American States, and the United States isn’t allowed into the Community of Latin American Caribbean States. So there’s not a lot of places for the leaders of the two countries to casually bump into one another. If Obama has been willing to shake hands with other U.S. foes like Moammar Gaddafi or Hugo Chávez, why not Raúl Castro?
Pleasantries aren’t the issue. The U.S.-Cuba relationship is defined by a U.S. trade embargo on Cuba initiated in 1960 and codified into U.S. law since the Clinton years. Unless the Castro regime falls, it takes an act of Congress to change that. It’s unlikely that this uniquely dysfunctional Congress views mending its relationship with Cuba as a priority. Congress hasn’t even been able to pass a bill authorizing U.S. travel to the island. The handshake doesn’t change that.
Obama’s opponents were quick to pounce on him for shaking hands with the leader of a nation that abuses human rights (nevermind that the United States itself runs a military prison in Cuba famous for torturing and indefinitely detaining terrorism suspects). Marco Rubio lashed out at Obama, saying that “if the president was going to shake his hand, he should have asked him about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba,” according to The Hill. Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer wondered whether the handshake “would have been disrespectful to the spirit of Mandela,” apparently unaware that Mandela was a huge Fidel Castro fan and Cuba ally.
Some of those who listened to what Obama had to say, however, heard words that sounded critical of the Cuban leader. Journalist Marc Caputo of the Miami Herald called Obama’s speech a “backhanded slap” against Castro because of lines like: “There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”
For his part, Castro has yet to explain his take on the event, but it’s hard to imagine that tomorrow the Cuban state press will stop railing against U.S. imperialism or that the Cuban government will suddenly stop harassing dissidents.
Under Obama, the United States has softened its policy toward Cuba considerably. He has eased travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban-Americans and encouraged so-called “people to people” contacts. Likewise, Cuba under Raúl Castro has initiated a series of economic reforms unimaginable during the rule of his brother. Within that context, it’s understandable that many might see the Tuesday’s handshake as a symbol of friendship in a relationship historically marked by enmity.
But until a handshake between American and Cuban heads of state takes place in Washington or Havana, it’s likely no more than a trivial gesture.