The world lost Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid icon, freedom fighter and champion of human rights. He was the symbol of the struggle for justice and dignity in South Africa and around the globe. Mandela spent his life championing for race equality but also for peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Tuesday at Mandela’s memorial service, President Barack Obama shook hands with Raúl Castro, brother of Fidel Castro, and president of Cuba since his appointment in 2008. The handshake was the first between American and Cuban presidents since 2000, when Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro greeted each other at a United Nations luncheon in New York (although at that time the handshake took place in private), and only the second since 1959, when Castro took power. Former President Jimmy Carter shook hands with Fidel Castro on a visit to Cuba in 2002, long after Carter’s presidency had ended, during the first trip by a sitting or former American president to Cuba since 1959.

While Fidel Castro’s brother shook Obama’s hand on Tuesday, those who saw or heard about the handshake were wondering what to read into it. In the United States the handshake drew a great deal of criticism from those who said that the gesture would benefit Castro by giving him the appearance of legitimacy. Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen blasted Obama during a House Committee hearing: “When 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. Raul Castro uses that hand to sign the orders to repress and jail democracy advocates.”

According to Human Rights Watch, Cuba remains the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent. The government of Raúl Castro continues to enforce political conformity using short-term detentions, beatings, public acts of repudiation, travel restrictions, and forced exile. Raúl Castro’s government continues to sentence dissidents in closed, summary trials. The government has also relied increasingly upon arbitrary arrests and short-term detentions to restrict the basic rights of its critics, including the right to assemble and move freely. Given the extent of human rights violations by the Cuban government, some equated shaking Castro’s hand to shaking Hitler’s hand during his time in power. In fact, Senator McCain publicly criticized President Obama for shaking Castro’s hand and compared the gesture to Neville Chamberlain’s handshake with Adolf Hitler at the start of World War II.

Yet, according to the White House President Obama was just being polite by shaking hands with Castro while making his way to the podium to pay tribute to Mandela. Administration officials pointed out that when Obama spoke at Mandela’s service to a crowd full of world leaders, he stressed the need to respect human rights.

Some say that Mandela was right in his quest for forgiveness and reconciliation, and that the best way to achieve progress in the realm of human rights is to promote unity as opposed to isolation. They argue that diplomacy is the best way to achieve world peace and dignity for all people. And of course, many disagree with that approach.

When is a handshake more than a handshake?

Will Castro government likely profit from the Obama handshake by turning it into a pro-communist Cuba propaganda stunt?

Was Obama ignoring the serious human rights violations that take place in Cuba when he decided to shake the hand of its leader?

Is it possible that Obama wants to pursue diplomatic channels in its relations with Cuba and perhaps even agree to ease restrictions in exchange for the end of human rights violations by the Cuban government?

Was Senator McCain’s comparison of the Obama-Castro handshake to the one between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler overblown?


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