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Obama-Castro redux: Image of a handshake, but a speech with a backhanded slap


Picture 1We are inevitably drawn to pictures over words, to the image and not the meaning, the shadow and not the substance.

So the abiding takeaway of President Obama's appearance and tribute to Nelson Mandela today, for some, might not be what the president said but what he did: Shake hands with Cuban president/strongman Raul Castro.

If that's all that some people talk about, they missed the speech and its meanings. It's a sad commentary on how some would rather see what they want to see rather than also listen to what was said.

Obama's tribute was one of the most-inspiring speeches from a U.S. president in years. Picking a great quote is almost impossible because there are so many:

It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailor as well...

“I’m not a saint,” he said, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”...

In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness; persistence and faith.  He tells us what’s possible not just in the pages of dusty history books, but in our own lives as well.

Tucked in all of this, however, was a focused backhanded slap against repressive regimes like the one Castro presides over:

Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs; and are still persecuted for what they look like, or how they worship, or who they love.

We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace. There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.

But many aren't talking about any of this.

Most didn't hear the speech broadcast in the U.S. this morning. They won't read it. And there's a far better chance they'll see the photo or video of the handshake. Twitter is abuzz. The partisans have donned their armor of lazy talking points, hoisted their tired 140-character standards of dysfunction.

A few have noted the president "bowed" to Castro. It's a function of the president being so much taller than the little dictator, and being decorous at an event on the world stage. The encounter just didn't look like an act of obeisance by Obama.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't talk about the handshake. That doesn't mean Obama shouldn't have said more to Castro or criticize him face to face when he had a chance. But we should consider the text of the speech as well.

There's some historical significance to the greeting, as CNN points out, but reporter Christiane Amanpour's reaction was as instructive as it was over-wrought: "Castro! He's shaking hands with Raul Castro!"


What's the president of the United States supposed to do -- snub another world leader at the funeral of a great world figure who was friends with that other world leader?

That wouldn't be very Mandela of Obama.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio on ABC steered clear of overtly criticizing, but said "If he was going to shake his hand ...he should have asked him about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba."

Later Tuesday, Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen was more outraged. During a House hearing on a possible nuclear deal with Iran, Ros-Lehtinen criticized the deal and then transitioned to Cuba, telling Secretary of State John Kerry that, when Obama shook the "bloody hand" of Raul Castro it was a "propaganda coup" for the dictator

"Today is about honoring Nelson Mandela," Kerry said. "We didn't choose who was there."

Ros-Lehtinen: Is Castro upholding human rights?

Kerry: "No. Absolutely not."

To be clear: The Cuban leader attended the memorial because, of the few shortcomings in Mandela's praiseworthy life, he was a friend of the Castros.

The great South African leader never forcefully advocated for freedom in the spy-state of an island of Cuba. Gays are beaten there. Even rappers are imprisoned. An American, Alan Gross, is unfairly jailed and held as collateral in a spy-vs-spy tit-for-tat.

So how could Castro be a friend to Mandela? He and brother Fidel Castro, along with the Soviet Union, were loyal to Mandela and the cause of South African freedom when the U.S. wasn't. That was a stain on our nation's history and it was writ large in Miami when the city, fueled by justifiably angry Cuban exiles, unjustifiably snubbed Mandela's visit in 1990.

But today, there's a greater understanding of the greatness of Mandela, even here and in the exile community. Mauricio Claver-Carone said it best on his Capitol Hill Cubans blog where he noted that Mandela essentially repudiated the Castros through his actions.

Obama, in his speech, hit on similar notes. And the president puzzled over the greatness of Mandela and how we can continue his work.

The questions we face today - how to promote equality and justice; to uphold freedom and human rights; to end conflict and sectarian war - do not have easy answers.

Should Obama have said something more to Castro in those few moments of a handshake? Perhaps. Would it have made a difference? Probably not.

It's not easy to defend this president for problems at home and abroad. But at least Obama is challenging us and himself to be better. Chances are, we'll all come up short. We already are.

Unfortunately, it's just too easy for some to avoid the relatively easy work of listening to or reading an entire 15-minute speech, comprehending it and putting our biases aside. So here it is:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you so much. Thank you. To Graça Machel and the Mandela family; to President Zuma and members of the government; to heads of states and government, past and present; distinguished guests -- it is a singular honor to be with you today, to celebrate a life like no other. To the people of South Africa -- (applause) -- people of every race and walk of life -- the world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us. His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and your hope found expression in his life. And your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy.

It is hard to eulogize any man -- to capture in words not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but the essential truth of a person -- their private joys and sorrows; the quiet moments and unique qualities that illuminate someone’s soul. How much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world.

Born during World War I, far from the corridors of power, a boy raised herding cattle and tutored by the elders of his Thembu tribe, Madiba would emerge as the last great liberator of the 20th century. Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement -- a movement that at its start had little prospect for success. Like Dr. King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed and the moral necessity of racial justice. He would endure a brutal imprisonment that began in the time of Kennedy and Khrushchev, and reached the final days of the Cold War. Emerging from prison, without the force of arms, he would -- like Abraham Lincoln -- hold his country together when it threatened to break apart. And like America’s Founding Fathers, he would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations -- a commitment to democracy and rule of law ratified not only by his election, but by his willingness to step down from power after only one term.

Given the sweep of his life, the scope of his accomplishments, the adoration that he so rightly earned, it’s tempting I think to remember Nelson Mandela as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men. But Madiba himself strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait. (Applause.) Instead, Madiba insisted on sharing with us his doubts and his fears; his miscalculations along with his victories. “I am not a saint,” he said, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection -- because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried -- that we loved him so. He was not a bust made of marble; he was a man of flesh and blood -- a son and a husband, a father and a friend. And that’s why we learned so much from him, and that’s why we can learn from him still. For nothing he achieved was inevitable. In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness, and persistence and faith. He tells us what is possible not just in the pages of history books, but in our own lives as well.

Mandela showed us the power of action; of taking risks on behalf of our ideals. Perhaps Madiba was right that he inherited, “a proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness” from his father. And we know he shared with millions of black and colored South Africans the anger born of, “a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments…a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people,” he said.

But like other early giants of the ANC -- the Sisulus and Tambos -- Madiba disciplined his anger and channeled his desire to fight into organization, and platforms, and strategies for action, so men and women could stand up for their God-given dignity. Moreover, he accepted the consequences of his actions, knowing that standing up to powerful interests and injustice carries a price. “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I’ve cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and [with] equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” (Applause.) Mandela taught us the power of action, but he also taught us the power of ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those who you agree with, but also those who you don’t agree with. He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper’s bullet. He turned his trial into an indictment of apartheid because of his eloquence and his passion, but also because of his training as an advocate. He used decades in prison to sharpen his arguments, but also to spread his thirst for knowledge to others in the movement. And he learned the language and the customs of his oppressor so that one day he might better convey to them how their own freedom depend upon his. (Applause.)

Mandela demonstrated that action and ideas are not enough. No matter how right, they must be chiseled into law and institutions. He was practical, testing his beliefs against the hard surface of circumstance and history. On core principles he was unyielding, which is why he could rebuff offers of unconditional release, reminding the Apartheid regime that “prisoners cannot enter into contracts.”

But as he showed in painstaking negotiations to transfer power and draft new laws, he was not afraid to compromise for the sake of a larger goal. And because he was not only a leader of a movement but a skillful politician, the Constitution that emerged was worthy of this multiracial democracy, true to his vision of laws that protect minority as well as majority rights, and the precious freedoms of every South African.

And finally, Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit. There is a word in South Africa -- Ubuntu -- (applause) -- a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.

We can never know how much of this sense was innate in him, or how much was shaped in a dark and solitary cell. But we remember the gestures, large and small -- introducing his jailers as honored guests at his inauguration; taking a pitch in a Springbok uniform; turning his family’s heartbreak into a call to confront HIV/AIDS -- that revealed the depth of his empathy and his understanding. He not only embodied Ubuntu, he taught millions to find that truth within themselves.

It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well -- (applause) -- to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion and generosity and truth. He changed laws, but he also changed hearts.

For the people of South Africa, for those he inspired around the globe, Madiba’s passing is rightly a time of mourning, and a time to celebrate a heroic life. But I believe it should also prompt in each of us a time for self-reflection. With honesty, regardless of our station or our circumstance, we must ask: How well have I applied his lessons in my own life? It’s a question I ask myself, as a man and as a President.

We know that, like South Africa, the United States had to overcome centuries of racial subjugation. As was true here, it took sacrifice -- the sacrifice of countless people, known and unknown, to see the dawn of a new day. Michelle and I are beneficiaries of that struggle. (Applause.) But in America, and in South Africa, and in countries all around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not yet done.

The struggles that follow the victory of formal equality or universal franchise may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before, but they are no less important. For around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger and disease. We still see run-down schools. We still see young people without prospects for the future. Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs, and are still persecuted for what they look like, and how they worship, and who they love. That is happening today. (Applause.)

And so we, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace. There are too many people who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. (Applause.) And there are too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.

The questions we face today -- how to promote equality and justice; how to uphold freedom and human rights; how to end conflict and sectarian war -- these things do not have easy answers. But there were no easy answers in front of that child born in World War I. Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done. South Africa shows that is true. 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.

We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. But let me say to the young people of Africa and the young people around the world -- you, too, can make his life’s work your own. Over 30 years ago, while still a student, I learned of Nelson Mandela and the struggles taking place in this beautiful land, and it stirred something in me. It woke me up to my responsibilities to others and to myself, and it set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today. And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be a better man. (Applause.) He speaks to what’s best inside us.

After this great liberator is laid to rest, and when we have returned to our cities and villages and rejoined our daily routines, let us search for his strength. Let us search for his largeness of spirit somewhere inside of ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, when our best-laid plans seem beyond our reach, let us think of Madiba and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of his cell: “It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

What a magnificent soul it was. We will miss him deeply. May God bless the memory of Nelson Mandela. May God bless the people of South Africa. (Applause.)

This post has been updated.


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Pepa Moneda

Wow, it didn't take the mainstream media long to get the White House apologist talking points.

Julia Dawson

Thank you for this piece, Marc - the best you have ever written. Politics is a tightrope, and knowing which side to land on says it all.
And thank you for the text of Obama's speech that so beautifully represents the inspiration of Mandela's life.


Apparently, Cubans' freedom is expendable if it means stroking the egos of the social elite. How many political prisoners had been rotting in Castro's jails for decades when Mandela visited to praise the regime and reject human rights activists? It's not a matter of mere words: his actions, legitimization of the Castro regime, rejection of Cuban human rights activists, refusal to isolate Castro like was done to the apartheid regime -- these actions sharply set the cause of freedom in Cuba back and helped the Castro regime survive it's most vulnerable time.

Mandela isn't beyond reproach: we deserve an honest accounting of his life and not the shallow propaganda newspapers are devoted to producing. I find it incredibly immoral that a "freedom" fighter in one country would so recklessly set back the cause of freedom in another. That's not leadership or heroism, but self interest.

ed jenkins

The American people did not need to see this to know that the man that they had mistakenly and now regret electing was the communist that many had warned about. However this is another demonstration as no prior American President would have given this evil communist the opportunity to gain legitimacy by shaking hands with an American President.


Can you imagine if Pope JP2 had gone to Eastern Europe to legitimize the Iron Curtain? Or if Lech Walesa had gone to North Korea to express solidarity with their psycho ruling family?


Fidel Castro had similar speeches troughout the years, was a great friend of Mandela. What you fail to mention is that great injustice, inequality and jailing of political activists happens still today in the United States. I'm not pro-Cuba in its policies, just saying don't close your eyes for the dirt swept under the (Mainstream Media) carpet.


How many anti-revolutionaries were sent by Castro to Angola to die? We should interview a few of those who survived and ask them what they think of Mandela's appreciation for Cuban military adventurism.


Pepa, Jj, and the irrepressible ed jenkins make a fine chorus of hostility. Mandela was a man that did what many thought was impossible in defeating a most repressive regime without much blood shed. He had to use those that would support him to good effect. It is a wonder of modern political life that he survived and won. Our leaders called him and the ANC terrorists. Castro, Arafat, and a few others called them freedom fighters. I applaud Mandela for being the statesman that he was and I expect Obama to be the best statesman that he can be. Mandela did not turn his back on those who helped him and he accepted the friendship of the United States when it was finally offered. Clean hands are hard to find in world politics. Shaking hands with a neighbor that we have a conflict with does not make them dirty.

Ito Bendito

Just when I start feeling sad that the oceans might swallow Miami whole, I come across the comments of people like JJ, pepa, and Jenkins, and I immediately feel like the tides can't come fast enough.


Curious that all the aggrieved classes fighting for freedom and human rights ALWAYS throw the cause of Cuban freedom under the bus the first chance they get. And if Cubans become indignant at their exploitation, well then they are just terrible people that should be swallowed by the oceans. Why do people, including Mandela, get a free pass for enabling and empowering Cuba's slave master?

South Africa was rid of apartheid through isolation, and yet apologists do everything they can to oppose and prevent increasing isolation of Cuba's Castro regime. Instead of calling for boycotts, they call for more tourism and commerce. Instead of pariah, they see Cuba as a romantic utopia. To some confused souls, it's worse to question a part of Mandela's legacy than it was for Mandela to actually hurt the Cuban people through actions. You know, Cubans aren't allowed to be skeptical of the slavemaster's friends.

Exile community does more harm than good

I find it amazing that the shortsighted Cuban exile community condemns the atrocities in Cuba but then fights to protect an embargo that only empowers the Castro regime, allowing the atrocities to continue. The Miami exile community is also to blame for the treatment of the Cuban people. Ros-Lehiten only cares about getting reelected, not about the Cuban people.


"Exile community does more harm than good" - Apartheid was ended largely through isolation, divestment, and boycotts.
But somehow freedom will come to Cuba via tourism, investment, and commerce with the communist-military caudillo? Useful idiot!


Can you imagine if a Republican president had shaken hands with an evil communist dictator like Gorbachev?

Independent Cuban American

Dave, Reagan did shake hands with Gorbachev and Nixon with China. Dear lord, even the Israelis and Palestinian shake hands occasionally. We need to stop this adolescent nonsense and grow up. Foreign policy does subscribe to the rules of the high school playground. The embargo could have worked if the international community had been on board, as was eventually the case with South Africa. That did not happen, however, because Castro has won the international PR campaign consistently. And while we controlled the US government's stance towards Cuba, he was winning the UN General Assembly's declaring the embargo a human rights violation. What a coup!! Today, the embargo and the policy of isolation have been proven a failure by the very fact that they have not brought about the changes desired. Probably because WE, the exile community, keep the regime alive every month via Western Union. Cuba will hardly change until WE change and heed Mandela's greatest quote: "We must forget the past"

ed jenkins

It has just come to my attention that an American politician in Africa was in a similar situation yesterday and took the correct action regarding Castro and that was to walk out of the speech. While this politician is relatively new and most likely unknown to the readers of this hometown paper he came to my attention about 5 years ago through a friend who went to law school with him and was in his wedding. This man is a young up and coming Senator that the readers may want to keep an eye on named Ted Cruz. His father knows the evils of communist Cuba and had to escape according to my friend only with a few dollars sewn into his clothing. This Cruz set a great example for how American politicians should treat the evil communist Castros of Cuba.

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