What Raul Castro said to Barack Obama: ‘I am Castro’

 <span class="cutline_leadin">Shake up: </span>President Barack Obama meets Cuban President Raul Castro in South Africa.
Shake up: President Barack Obama meets Cuban President Raul Castro in South Africa.
Associated Press / AP

Now we know what Cuban ruler Raúl Castro said to President Barack Obama as they famously shook hands at a memorial for the late South African President Nelson Mandela.

“Mr. President, I am Castro,” the Cuban said in English, at least according to a column Thursday by Fidel Castro, his brother and predecessor.

Dedicated mostly to the struggle against apartheid, the column referred briefly and at the tail end to the handshake that unleashed predictions of warmer U.S.-Cuba relations, complaints that Obama shook the hand of a dictator and shrugged shoulders.

“The role of the Cuban delegation on the death of our brother and friend Nelson Mandela will be unforgettable,” the 87-year-old Fidel Castro wrote in his first column since August published in the official media.

“I congratulate Comrade Raúl for his brilliant performance and especially for his firmness and dignity when, with a friendly but firm gesture, he greeted the head of the United States government and said to him in English: ‘Mr. President, I am Castro.”

News videos captured Raúl Castro saying something and smiling as he shook hands with Obama, almost as if he was surprised that the president of his historic enemy to the north had not turned his back on him. But his words were not known until Thursday.

White House and State Department officials afterward played down the encounter, saying it was “accidental” and that Obama only acted with “courtesy” as he arrived at the Mandela memorial and greeted all the other heads of state already there.

Fidel Castro did not attend the ceremonies and has made few public appearances in recent years, although two people claimed to have seen him in the past month in good physical and mental health. He surrendered power after emergency surgery in 2006, and appointed his brother, now 82, to succeed him.

Castro’s 2,275 word column, published in the government’s Cubadebate Web page, touched on some of his usual topics — the threat of nuclear war, praise for China and the former Soviet Union and the despoiling of natural resources.

It focused largely on Cuba’s support for the struggle against apartheid, noting that Havana sent tens of thousands of troops to Angola in the 1970s to successfully prop up a Marxist government under attack by guerrillas backed by South Africa and the United States.

Mandela repeatedly thanked and praised Fidel Castro over the years for his support and South Africa maintains close relations with Cuba to this day. Raúl Castro’s invitation to speak at the Mandela service was considered as a recognition of Havana’s support.

Castro ended his column with the reference to the handshake, a ratification of his decision to appoint Raúl as his successor and a cryptic reference to the large number of Cubans leaving the island.

“When my own health put a limit to my physical ability, I did not hesitate for one minute to express my opinion on who should assume the responsibility” of ruling Cuba, he wrote. “A life is one minute in the history of the people, and I believe that whoever assumes that responsibility today requires the experience and authority needed to choose between a growing, almost infinite number of options.

“Imperialism will always have various cards to play to vanquish our island,” he continued, “even if it has to depopulate it, depriving it of young men and women, offering them crumbs from the goods and natural resources that it loots from the world.”

An El Nuevo Herald earlier this month showed at least 44,000 Cubans migrated to the United States in the year that ended Sept. 30.

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