Much Ado About a Handshake

Attending a memorial event for former South African President Nelson Mandela, President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro. Secretary of State John Kerry excused Obama; “He didn’t choose who’s there.” Yet the encounter told much about the past and maybe about the future also.

Organizers of the memorial honored President Castro by asking him to give the culminating speech of the international homage to Mandela. He, President Obama, and four other foreign dignitaries were together on the dais. One observer suggests planners situated Castro “in such a way that an encounter [with Obama] was inevitable,”

Castro’s preeminent role in the proceedings stemmed from a history largely unknown in the United States, or downplayed. Speaking in Cuba in 1991, Nelson Mandela testified to Cuban contributions to South Africa’s freedom struggle.

“What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations with Africa?” Mandela asked. “Your presence and the reinforcement of your forces in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale were of truly historic significance,” he told Cuban listeners. “The crushing defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale was a victory for the whole of Africa. [It] broke the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressors [and] inspired struggling people inside South Africa… Cuito Cuanavale has been a turning point in the struggle to free the continent and our country from the scourge of apartheid!”

Cuito Cuanavale is the Angola location where Cuban and Angolan troops defeated South African invaders on March 23, 1988. The Cubans had repelled earlier invasions likewise directed at undoing Angolan independence. Between 1975 and 1990, 300,000 Cuban volunteers fought in Southern Africa; 2000 of them died.


Media coverage of the ceremonies overlooked other inconvenient truths. The United States and its NATO allies “were the most firm economic, military, and political supporters of the apartheid regime in South Africa.”  Mandela remained on the U.S. terrorism watch list until 2008. A CIA agent probably supplied the tip leading to Mandela’s arrest in 1962. U.S. adulation of Mandela is thus on shaky ground, notwithstanding four U.S. presidents on hand at the observances.

Reacting to the handshake, Florida Republican Congressperson Ileana Ros-Lehtinen interrupted Secretary of State Kerry’s testimony on Iran. “[W]hen the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant,” she observed; “Raul Castro uses that hand to sign the orders to repress and jail democracy advocates.” Senator John McCain found a precedent: “Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler.”

Silence had greeted President Clinton’s handshake with President Fidel Castro at the United Nations in 2000. This time anxiety over Obama administration inclinations to ease hostilities against Cuba may explain the responses. Their extreme venom even suggests such speculation may be on target. If so, the handshake may, after the fact, become a signpost to the future.  “What happened in Soweto [at the memorial],” opines Cuban analyst Iroel Sánchez, “is one drop in a glass that is more and more full and is pushing in the direction of change.”

At a Miami fundraiser on November 8, President Obama told wealthy Cuban Americans that, “[We] have to continue to update our policies … So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.

And pressure mounts for his administration to negotiate with Cuba on a crucial issue. Four years ago Cuba arrested and jailed USAID contractor Alan Gross because he illegally provided opposition groups with sophisticated communication equipment. Gross’ wife and her allies want the Obama administration to negotiate his release. That would surely involve discussion of exchanging Gross for the four remaining Cuban Five anti-terrorists lodged in U.S. jails.

Interviewed about the Gross affair on December 15 by CNN, Secretary of State Kerry spoke of “back-door negotiations” in which “I have personally been involved” along with “my undersecretary of political affairs.”  “The White House has been involved.”

In any event, “most foreign orators at Nelson Mandela’s funeral represented big powers,” according to Sánchez.  Cuba, as “the moral power the United States has been unable to break,” was different. “Its foreign policy founded on principles is one reason why Washington has undertaken to defeat the revolution of Fidel and Raul Castro.”

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.



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W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

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