While attending the late South African President Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, President Barack Obama shook Cuban President Raúl Castro’s hand. Normally, a handshake between world leaders wouldn’t engender much comment, but this one did.
Presidents and prime ministers of opposing philosophies often are thrown into situations and are expected to behave. Part of international leadership is being diplomatic. It’s not unlike estranged or divorced couples attending their children’s weddings: They make nice so as not to cause a scene.
In the case of Obama shaking Castro’s hand, it wouldn’t be the first time he’s shaken a political or philosophical foe’s hand. President Vladimir Putin, President Xi Jinping and dozens of others far less savory have received presidential handshakes. What’s the alternative? Spit in Castro’s face? Challenge him to a duel at dawn?
While Cuba’s human rights record is not one we admire, both countries have taken steps toward some sort of rapprochement that is long overdue. The eventual normalization of relations with Cuba is inevitable, no matter the past relationship between the 11 presidents and Raúl Castro and his brother Fidel.
Shaking hands is what adults do. It’s particularly interesting to see the torrent of criticism directed at Obama from the right. Perhaps conservatives might want to take a look back at the photograph of Donald Rumsfeld genially pumping Saddam Hussein’s hand, or maybe Richard Nixon doing a grip-and-grin with Chairman Mao. Maybe a few more extended hands might lead to the political and economic reform Cuba needs.