As he made his way along the platform at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, President Obama stopped briefly to shake hands and exchange a few words with Cuba’s president, Raul Castro.
The U.S. State Department says the handshake, one of many Obama did as he headed for his seat, was “unplanned.”
And if Obama had not, it would have been a very public, very visible snub that detracted from the memorial service for a leader who symbolized reconciliation.
But many read much, much more into that brief encounter. Reuters said it was “one of the most memorable images” from the service and asked rhetorically, “could it also prove to be the most significant?”
The Cuban government said the handshake may show the “beginning of the end of U.S. aggressions.”
Obama’s critics were less generous. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., compared it to British leader Neville Chamberlain shaking Adolph Hitler’s hand at Munich shortly before World War II.
Nor did the gesture sit well with the staunchly anti-Castro Cuban-American lobby. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., called shaking “the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro” a propaganda coup for the tyrant.
While the Cuban government has slightly relaxed its grip on the Cuban economy, allowing limited private ownership of land and homes, limited foreign travel and limited access to cellphones and computers, it retains its iron grip on political power.
Meanwhile, the U.S. maintains, with a few agricultural exceptions, a near-total embargo on Cuba in effect since 1950.
The U.S. canceled tentative talks on easing the embargo in 2009 after the Castro government imprisoned Alan Gross, a U.S. contractor hired by the island’s Jewish community to provide internet services.
Cuba has either brushed off U.S. requests that Gross be freed or attached unacceptable conditions to his release.
The handshake was a feel-good moment for a crowd gathered more to celebrate Mandela’s achievements than solemnly mourn his passing and to accord Obama what the Guardian newspaper called his “political rock-star status.”
But it is pushing the limited symbolism of that moment to suggest it foreshadows a U.S.-Cuban rapprochement. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes a handshake is just a handshake.