When is a handshake not just a handshake? When it only happens every 13 years.
President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro briefly greeted each other Tuesday as they met at the memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela.
The two nations haven’t had diplomatic ties since 1960 and this is only the second time the leaders of the United States and the communist island are known to have pressed the flesh.
Asked about the historic handshake, Castro told Colombia’s La FM radio it was “normal.”
“We’re civilized people,” he said.
As Obama bounded up the steps at FNB Stadium in Soweto, where the memorial was taking place, he bumped into the elderly Castro standing beside Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. The two men smiled, shook hands and appeared to exchange a few words.
The entire encounter lasted less than 10 seconds.
“It would be really interesting if a lip reader could decipher what Raúl was telling Obama,” said Francisco Hernández, the president of the Cuban American National Foundation. “Other than that, I don’t think it was really anything of significance.”
The chance encounter comes amid small steps toward U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, including increased cooperation in drug-interdiction, rescue at sea and oil-spill planning, said Geoff Thale, who runs the Cuba program at the Washington Office on Latin America.
“In that context, [the handshake] is a modest but positive signal,” he said. “I don’t think people should go around reading too much into it — the embargo is not ending tomorrow.”
The White House said the meeting was not planned and didn’t go beyond an “exchange of greetings.” Obama went on to shake the hands of several of other heads of state at the memorial, which drew more than 90 leaders from around the world.
But the image of the two rivals meeting at the funeral of Mandela — who made his name as a peace-maker — resonated.
Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper called it “historic,” and former President Jimmy Carter told CNN it was “something significant” and that he hoped that it would be “an omen for the future.”
In a column in the Cubano1erPlano.com website, Havana-based analyst Jorge Gómez Barata said Mandela was mediating from beyond the grave.
To get the leaders of these two historically rival nations on the same stage, Gómez wrote, “was something only an exceptionally wise statesman like Nelson Mandela could pull off.”
Since taking office in 2009, Obama has tried to improve ties with Cuba, relaxing travel restrictions and acknowledging Havana’s moves to liberalize the economy.
During a recent visit to Miami, Obama said the U.S. needs to be “creative” and “thoughtful” as it updates its Cold War-era policies, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has echoed the sentiment.
In his speech Tuesday at the ceremony, Castro said he was ready to negotiate “with those who think differently.”
But major hurdles remain: Washington maintains a crippling economic embargo on the island and Cuba has been holding USAID contractor Alan Gross in detention for more than four years.
And whatever goodwill was generated by the handshake was tempered by finger-wagging from the dais.
During his address, Obama referred to Mandela by his Xhosa clan name and chastised nations like Cuba — though he did not mention any by name — that “claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”
As if on cue, Cuba arrested more than a dozen human rights activists Tuesday during protests to mark International Human Rights Day.
Not surprisingly, the South African encounter rattled some back in this hemisphere.
"It's nauseating and disheartening to see President Obama shake hands with Raúl Castro, who represents one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships,” U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, said in a statement. “It’s unfortunate that Cuban opposition leaders, who routinely risk their health and well-being in pursuit of their basic human rights, may be discouraged by the president acknowledging their oppressor.”
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, told The Hill newspaper that “If the President was going to shake his hand, he should have asked him about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba.”
And Rosa María Payá, the daughter of Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá, who died in a mysterious automobile crash last year, blasted Obama for “greeting the dictator and the probable murderer of my father.”
But the fact that Obama acknowledged Castro, despite knowing he would be slammed at home, “is perhaps a telling sign that he may be willing to continue to implement small, incremental steps to engage with Cuba even if it comes with spending some political capital,” Peter Schechter, the director of the Washington, D.C.-based Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, said in a statement.
But sometimes a handshake is just a handshake.
In 1959, Vice President Richard Nixon shook Fidel’s hand shortly after the Cuban seized power. In 2000, then-President Bill Clinton also grasped the dictator’s hand at the United Nations, but that handshake wasn’t caught on film. And in 2009, Obama shook the hand of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. None of those encounters, however, marked a sea-change in diplomatic relations.
“I couldn’t run away to keep from greeting him,” Fidel Castro explained after that 2000 encounter with Clinton, according to AFP news agency. “Just like with everyone else, I stopped for a few seconds and, with total dignity and courtesy, I greeted him…It would have been extravagant and rude to do anything else.”
On Tuesday, the White House indicated that it would have been impolite not to greet the Cuban leader and cautioned against reading more into the encounter.
“Obviously, we recognize that it’s been quite some time since the presidents of the United States and Cuba were even in the same place,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy National Security Adviser. “I think, though, that what people need to remember is what today was about: Nelson Mandela, one of the giants of the 20th century.”
Miami Herald Special Correspondent Geoff Hill contributed to this report from Johannesburg, South Africa.