The photo of US president Barack Obama shaking hands with Cuban president Raúl Castro may come to be the defining image from Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa earlier today. It’s fitting that Mandela, even in death, can bring together the leaders of two countries that have had such a tortured bilateral relationship. If Mandela and the ruling apartheid regime of the 1980s could set aside differences to forge a new South Africa, Obama and Castro can share a moment of basic human civility.
Perhaps more instructive are the words of Obama’s speech at the Mandela funeral, which might apply just as well to the US-Cuban relationship:
It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well, to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion and generosity and truth. He changed laws, but he also changed hearts.
It’s not unprecedented — though we don’t have a photo, former US president Bill Clinton shared a handshake with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 2000.
While it’s encouraging to see some minor thaw in the US-Cuban rupture, it’s unlikely to herald any truly rapprochement in a world where Florida still has 29 electoral votes and the truly awful Bob Menendez, the US senator from New Jersey, continues to chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Menendez, a Cuban-American, is among the most anti-Castro members of the US Senate, so don’t expect any broad-based effort to lift the half-century embargo against Cuba — US citizens are generally prohibited from traveling to the Caribbean island of 11 million people, where Raúl’s brother Fidel took power in a popular revolution in 1959. I’ll leave aside in this post the valid points of both the anti-embargo position and the anti-Castro position — though Castro replaced in Fulgencio Batista a corrupt and bloody strongman, the Castro record on human rights, democratic participation and economic freedom isn’t incredibly strong.
Americans who believe that Cuban policy remains about 30 years behind the times will be mildly heartened by the handshake, and the truly nutty will attack Obama for ‘comforting America’s enemies’ or some other outrageous criticism.
But sometimes a handshake is just a handshake.
Photo credit to Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images.