What a difference a handshake makes?


If a handshake is a peak in two nation’s bilateral relations, you can make the assumption that the two countries have thawed relations at best. So as Raul Castro, younger brother of Communist icon Fidel, and Barack Obama exchanged a brief handshake at this morning’s memorial service for ‘Reconciler-in-Chief’ Nelson Mandela, the internet went crazy with speculation into what the handshake – the first captured on camera in the fifty years of revolution – could mean.

The rationalists amongst us might speculate that, given the circumstances, it was an entirely appropriate breach of the long-standing ‘silent treatment’ protocol; two men, inspired in different ways by Mandela, briefly dropping the whole ‘Cold War thing’ to commiserate the loss of a 20th Century heavy-weight.

Within minutes however, bloggers – and in particular Tweeters and news-site commenters – were assuming that with a single embrace of palms, either Obama was accepting his inevitable move to socialism or Castro was finally surrendering to the ‘Yanqui imperialists’. Neither of these are true, of course, but it didn’t stop the usually reasonable Sen. McCain from likening it to when “Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler”.


It is a point worth making that “Raul Castro uses that hand to sign the orders to repress and jail democracy advocate”, as the Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (a Cuban-born Representative) pointed out, and that it could be spun as a propaganda victory. The government-owned La Granma has already published the picture online, but further analysis within Cuba is yet to be made.

It is rare that the American and Cuban leaders even appear in the same room, with the exception of large-scale international meetings, such as the UN conference in 2000 which saw then-President Clinton interact with Fidel Castro. This dates back to Castro’s visit to the USA in 1959, immediately after the Revolution, where Eisenhower skipped a meeting with the self-elected leader to play golf; something Castro undoubtedly added to his resentment of Americans.

Obama’s speech itself, however, may have been a closer jab at the Cuban regime with him saying: “There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people”. Moments later Raul confirmed this with a speech which lauded the Mandela-Cuban love-affair, before condemning “the consequences of colonialism” in all its guises. It was the closest they could come to squabbling at what was, effectively, a funeral.

There is, however, no ‘Mandelaesqe’ reconciliation. There will not be any end to the embargo. Cuba will unlikely reconsider the freedom of US-citizen Alan Gross or the US will think likewise in regards to the propaganda-porn the Five. The two leaders will remain at loggerheads as the Cuban regime slowly crumbles.

And so, the media – be they bloggers like myself, or pundits of all shades – will work out what exactly it was. Was it planned? Perhaps. President Nixon, the most vehement of anti-Communists, once requested cameras to take picture of him shaking Mao Zedongs hand as he moved to exploit the Sino-Soviet split. Was it avoidable? Probably not. As Vice-President Gore received similar backlash for doing everything in his means to avoid shaking Fidel’s hand.

We can, at this point in time, narrow it down to one thing: Obama is not a Communist. It probably wasn’t even that intensely planned, as Raul looked positively taken aback by the experience.

Perhaps CNN’s John King captured it best: “Castro was right there. I would say the President of the United States really didn’t have much of a choice”, he said, before adding “I think the President was showing respect for the moment.”


One response to “What a difference a handshake makes?

  1. Pingback: 2013: 7 things which have defined Latin America’s year | Watching the Americas·

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