Obama handshake with Castro electrifies global stage at Mandela memorial : worldleaks
President Barack Obama‘s handshake (at Nelson Mandela‘s memorial service in South Africa) with Cuban President Raul Castro, brother of the legendary Fidel Castro, wired the diplomatic world on Tuesday, leading to fervid speculation whether the United States is ready for an approchement of the kind it has started with Iran.
The brief encounter took place as Obama, listed as the top speaker among foreign dignitaries at the service, came last and bounded up to the podium where five other leaders, including President Pranab Mukherjee, were already lined up. Raul Castro was first among them, and Obama showed little hesitation in pumping his hand, even though in the past US officials have gone to great lengths to avoid meetings between their leaders and the Castros.
Immediately after the Castro handshake, which also took a brief exchange of inaudible words, Obama also exchanged kisses on the check with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who has filed a formal protest with the United States and rebuked the National Security Agency for its eavesdropping on world leaders. He then greeted the Chinese vice president Li Yuanchao and Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba before rounding up with President Mukherjee.
Castros’ Cuba has been a diplomatic untouchable for US for nearly half a century while there have been occasional accidental brushes. In September 2000, then-President Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro shook hands at the United Nations in what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright later called a ”chance encounter.” It was believed to be the first time Castro had shaken hands with a sitting US president.
But Obama is cut from a different cloth, and appears less inhibited in talking to foreign leaders long demonized by America’s conservative white establishment. In 2009, he shook hands with the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, a strident critic of the United States, at the Summit of the Americas. More recently, his outreach with Iran has startled prospects of peace in the Middle-East.
But Cuba, in the immediate sphere of American influence, has been the proverbial pebble in the shoe. Obama has been critical of the Cuban government’s limitations on civil rights, but he has also said Washington must find new mechanism and tools to deal with one of the last few communist redoubts. His administration has eased restrictions on American travel to Cuba and has initiated talks with Havana over issues such as immigration, postal services, and environmental concerns.
Saner voices in Washington have long called for a rethink on ties with the continental neighbor when the US has all along been engaged with far more odious countries – without giving up on the principles of human rights and civil liberties.
Even at the Mandela memorial, Obama did not balk from raising this fundamental issue. ”There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people,” he said. He could well have been relating to the leader of Cuba or China or Saudi Arabia.
Given the fury in Washington over disclosures by WikiLeaks and Snowden, it could also apply to the US leadership itself.
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