Obama Shakes Hands With Raúl Castro. Let’s All Freak Out.

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Dec. 10 2013 10:20 AM

Obama Shakes Hands With Raúl Castro. Let’s All Freak Out.

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President Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raúl Castro during the official memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium on Dec. 10, 2013, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

People on both sides of the debate are already making a bit too big a deal about this, but President Obama stopped briefly to shake hands with Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandel’s funeral this morning. It’s already getting the full Drudge siren treatment, and Breitbart’s John Nolte calls it “more than a little unsettling.” CNN's Chris Cuomo, meanwhile, described it on CNN's live broadcast as "about something bigger ... about forgiveness and reconciliation."

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

Anyone who sees this as an outrage should probably keep in mind that shaking hands with leaders who repress their own people is part of what presidents do—all presidents.

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America’s 50-year-old Cuba embargo is clearly badly in need of a rethink. But I’d also be cautious about casting this as a significant sign of rapprochement between the two countries.

While Obama has expressed interest in updating U.S. policy toward Cuba, moves toward normalizing relations between the two countries have been slow. Recent talks over immigration issues and re-establishing mail service, for instance, broke down over Cuba’s arrest of U.S. contractor Alan Gross, though there have been some smaller moves on travel restrictions. In any event, part of Obama’s speech appeared directly aimed at Castro, as well as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who was also present:      

"There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba's legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality," he said, referring to Mandela by his clan name.
"There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba's struggle for freedom but do not tolerate dissent from their own people," he said.

If South Africa is the textbook example of when political sanctions can be effective, Cuba is the textbook example of when they aren’t. The handshake could be a sign of bigger things to come, but keep in mind that Bill Clinton also shook hands with the leader of Cuba, then Fidel Castro, in 2000. Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake.