It was a simple gesture of respect from one leader to another.
But when President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro Dec. 10 at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela, the simple gesture was seen as controversial by some pundits and politicians.
Conservatives were immediately in an uproar.
The conservative website the Blaze ran with the headline “Obama Shook Hands With a Communist Dictator,” John Nolte of the conservative website Breitbart called the handshake “more than a little unsettling” and there was the predictable Twitter backlash from antagonists including Senator Marco Rubio R-Fla.
The brief encounter between Obama and Casto came during a ceremony that in part celebrated Mandela’s legacy of reconciliation.
Obama was simply greeting a line of world leaders attending the memorial before delivering his own eulogy. The handshakes with Castro and other world leaders weren’t planned in advance and didn’t involve any substantive discussions, said presidential adviser Ben Rhodes.
While the handshake was simply an exchange of greetings it would have been better if it indeed was a sign of better U.S.-Cuban relations.
It has been more than a half-century since the U.S. cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba.
It is now time for there to be a thaw in the Cold War.
U.S.-Cuban relations have been virtually nonexistent since 1961, when the United States assumed a policy of economic embargo and diplomatic isolation, neither of which substantially weakened Fidel Castro’s rule. Now that Fidel has transferred power to his younger brother, Raul, why shouldn’t the U.S. reconsider its policy toward Cuba? Many foreign experts say economic sanctions and travel restrictions only hurt the Cuban people, not the Cuban government. Diplomatic isolation and sanctions have not worked in breaking the Cuban government hold on power.
At a fundraiser in Miami last month, Obama was right to argue for a renewed approach toward Cuba.
“We’ve started to see changes on the island,” he said.
“We have to be creative,” he added. “And we have to be thoughtful and we have to continue to update our policies. Keep in mind that when Castro came to power, I was just born. So the notion that the same policies we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.”
(Reprinted from the Philadelphia Tribune)