It was one of the most awe-inspiring events of our lifetime: Ninety world leaders joining 100,000 South Africans in Johannesburg’s World Cup Stadium for a four-hour-long celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela.
But what did the U.S. media focus on? Not Mandela’s remarkable legacy; nor President Obama’s powerful eulogy; nor the historic and curious presence of Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton on the same plane for 18 hours. No, for 48 hours at least, all the media talked about was the accidental handshake between President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro.
Judging from the reaction of cable news, you’d have thought Obama had suddenly renounced his American citizenship and joined al-Qaida. Networks paraded a posse of conservatives quick to condemn Obama for showing even common courtesy to the leader of “Communist Cuba.” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called it “nauseating.” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart accused Obama of playing nice to Cuba, just like “every other terrorist dictatorship.” Sen. John McCain, as usual, outdid everybody else by comparing Obama’s handshake with Castro to Neville Chamberlain’s handshake with Adolf Hitler – which was particularly ironic coming from a man who not only shook hands, but spent an entire evening, with Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2009, and later tweeted to his followers: “Late evening with Col. Gadhafi at his ‘ranch’ in Libya – interesting evening with an interesting man.” So why was it OK for McCain to shake hands with dictator Gadhafi, but not OK for Obama to shake hands with dictator Castro? Just asking.
The fact is, on so many levels, this whole flap is silly. First of all, Obama didn’t give Castro a big hug, high-five or French kiss. It was just a handshake. A courteous, harmless gesture, which, as Jon Stewart pointed out, you could “teach a basset hound to do.” Obama didn’t seek Castro out. He shook his hand while greeting other world leaders seated in the VIP section. By the way, what was he supposed to do? Spit in his face? Flip him the bird?
It’s also worth pointing out that, shortly after shaking hands with Castro, Obama proceeded to the podium and blasted the contradiction shown by certain world “leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.” He didn’t mention Cuba or Castro by name. He didn’t have to.
Finally, let’s not forget where this alleged ill-considered handshake came down: at a memorial service honoring Nelson Mandela, the very embodiment of peace and reconciliation. If there ever were the right place for shaking hands with the enemy, this was it. Mandela even hugged his former white jailers. Had he been alive and present in the World Cup Stadium, he no doubt would have told everybody there to reach out and embrace everybody else, friend and foe.
Once again, not surprisingly, the media got it dead wrong. The only thing wrong with Obama’s handshake with Castro is that it didn’t go far enough. If only Obama had seized the moment and suggested to Castro: “Come on up to Washington next week, Raul. You and I need to talk about getting our two countries back on track.” Now that would have been a true Nelson Mandela moment.
There’s simply no reason to continue America’s 52-year-old economic embargo against Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis is long over. Cuba presents no military threat to the United States. Sure, it’s a “communist” country, but so are China and Vietnam, and we do business with them. Yes, they have an American in prison. So does Iran, and we’re negotiating with them. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports ending the embargo on Cuba so that U.S. businesses can invest in this hemisphere’s fastest-growing tourist destination, just 90 miles from Florida. Today, the embargo is supported only by Miami’s hardcore, anti-Castro political agitators, more and more of whom are dying off every day.
In the spirit of Nelson Mandela, President Obama should follow up his handshake with direct talks to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba. After all, in Johannesburg, acknowledging the lessons we can learn from Mandela, he declared: “South Africa shows we can change, that we can choose a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes. We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity.” Cuba’s a good place to start.