Shaking out the Obama-Castro handshake (+video)(Read article summary)
The handshake between Presidents Obama and Castro at Nelson Mandela's memorial in South Africa didn't cause much of a stir in Cuba. Here's why.
Thatâ€™s because official state TV and Granma, the Cuban Communist Partyâ€™s official newspaper, omitted the salutation from its coverage of former South African President Nelson Mandelaâ€™s memorial ceremony. [Editor's note: subsequent broadcasts did include footage of the handshake.]
While the handshake quickly went viral, lighting up media sitesÂ worldwide, Cuban blogger Yaoni SĂˇnchez was quick to point out on Twitter that government-controlled TV stations failed to even show the encounter, much less hypothesize what it symbolizes for Cuba-US relations.
If Cubaâ€™s press ignored the handshake, should we also be wary of staring too hard at the tea leaves?
â€śIt is probably unwise to read too much into Obamaâ€™s handshake with RaĂşl Castro,â€ť says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. â€śTo have refused to greet Castro â€“ especially at Nelson Mandelaâ€™s memorial service â€“ would have stood out as small-minded, and completely at odds with Mandelaâ€™s generosity of spirit.â€ť
Mr. Shifter highlights that, after the handshake, Mr. Obama pointedly criticized governments that do not tolerate dissent from their own people, a veiled reference to Cuba, China, and Zimbabwe, whose leaders were all in attendance.
â€śThe Obama administration is open to improving relations with Havana, and this mostly symbolic gesture underscores that openness, but there is a long way to go before one can talk about a meaningful thaw,â€ť says Shifter.
The handshake shakeout is likely to garner mixed reactions from Cubans: with left-leaning Cubans enthused to see any potential warming that could lift economic sanctions, while right-leaning Cubans push back against any friendliness toward the Castro government, according to Shifter. Miami-based blog Babalu, which is written by Cuban-Americas, for one, criticized Obama for lending â€ścredence and recognition to a vile and bloody dictatorial regime.â€ť
Hereâ€™s a video of the handshake, which shows Obama approaching Castro and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Brazil has cast itself as a protector of the island nation and a mediator between Latin America and the US. The last time Cubaâ€™s leader shook hands with a sitting US president was more than a decade ago, when Fidel Castro bumped into Bill Clinton at the United Nations in 2000. Nothing came of what Mr. Clintonâ€™s aides dismissed as a â€śchance encounter.â€ť
Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, says there may be something more to todayâ€™s handshake. Mr. Mandela was a peacemaker who openly embraced former Cuban leader Fidel Castro (who handed leadership to his brother RaĂşl in 2008).
â€śMandela represented a policy that Obama talked about during his election campaign but has failed to deliver,â€ť says Mr. Birns. â€śIt is almost as if Mandela has reached from the grave and committed one more act that heâ€™s been so richly praised for.â€ťÂ