Try as we might, we can’t get all that worked up over the fact that President Barack Obama and Cuban dictator Raúl Castro shook hands during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela on Tuesday in South Africa.
The occasion, it’s worth noting, was to celebrate the life of the former South African president, a man who found the inner strength to overcome enmity and who championed the cause of reconciliation with people who had been his enemies. Such was the extent of international admiration for him and his accomplishments that some 90 world leaders went to South Africa this week to pay their respects.
The backdrop didn’t seem to matter much to Sen. John McCain, who compared the handshake to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s handshake with Adolf Hitler in the run-up to World War II, or to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the son of Cuban immigrants and a strong opponent of Castro rule.
The White House felt compelled to say that the handshake, during which the two appeared to exchange brief pleasantries, was unplanned. We’d rather a spokesman would have told those who were aghast at the gesture to get over it.
It was a handshake, not a summit meeting, or even a beer summit. And given the proximity of the two leaders, refusing to shake hands would have amounted to a gratuitous snub, though it might have pleased the anti-Castro zealots.
Nevertheless, even Reuters called the handshake “one of the most memorable images” of the services for Mr. Mandela and wondered, “Could it also prove to be the most significant?”
Not if history is a reliable guide. Back in 2000, President Clinton and Fidel Castro shook hands at the United Nations. Yet little changed. The U.S. embargo, with some agricultural allowances, has remained in effect for more than 50 years, and the Castros continue to rule with an iron hand. Cuba didn’t help matters when in 2009 it imprisoned Alan Gross, an American who had been hired by Cuba’s Jewish community to provide Internet services. He is still being held despite repeated U.S. requests that he be released.
It would be nice to believe that the handshake between President Obama and President Castro was more than a gesture of civility, and that it heralds a new, warmer, more productive relationship between the United States and Cuba.
That, however, might be too much to expect, even of the spirit of Nelson Mandela.