Friday, December 13, 2013

What’s in a handshake?

    When President Barack Obama greeted dignitaries during the recent public ceremony honoring former South African President Nelson Mandela, he shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro. Newspapers and television networks, including ABC News, USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor and Fox News, gave priority coverage to this gesture. The handshake generated wide coverage because Cuba has been an avowed enemy of the U.S. since it put out the welcome mat for Soviet nuclear missiles in the 1960s
    Handshakes between leaders whose countries have had no official relations for decades can be momentous—or not. There was little uproar when President George W. Bush shook hands with Uzbekistan’s dictator, Islam Karimov, or when President George H. W. Bush greeted prominent socialist Hugo Chavez, who would become the fiercely anti-U.S. leader of Venezuela.
    Obama’s gesture became media fodder because Cuba remains a unique problem in American politics. Since Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959, Cuban Americans in South Florida have often played a critical role in electing U.S. presidents. Veterans of the revolutionary times have been vocal and unwavering in their demand that Cuba remain completely isolated unless Castro relinquishes power.
    Obama, however, has moved toward normalizing relations with this tiny island nation. That may be responsible for the claim that his handshake was somehow worse than other presidents’ handshakes. The real issue, however, is that isolationists offer no new vision to help open Cuba to the liberalizing forces that have broken out in much of the rest of world.
    Ironically, South Africa, where the handshake happened, is a powerful example of the good that relations between two countries can produce. Prior to the 1960s, the Afrikans government discouraged outside travel and trade for fear that its citizens would learn that white privilege and black repression were not the norm everywhere. The old ways did not hold after South Africans got a look.
    The U.S. can’t ignore the evil and cruelty of the Cuban internal security apparatus, but bringing the liberalizing power of travel and trade to bear will go further toward offering the Cuban people a freer world than any snub between presidents.
    Obama shook Castro’s hand, but he also spoke pointed truth to the Cuban leader and other leaders gathered on the dais when he said, “There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with [Mandela’s] struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”

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