The Twitter-verse other social media and right-wing blogs are abuzz over the handshake President Obama extended to Cuban Prime Minister Raul Castro.
The right-wing politicians are the most vociferous of the lot. It’s funny though because at least Mr. Castro accepted the gratuitous handshake some of them express how they can’t stand being in the same room with the POTUS.
We 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!”
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.
- Obama shakes hands with Raul Castro (israelmatzav.blogspot.com)
- Obama And Castro Handshake At Mandela Tribute (news.sky.com)
- A brief but important handshake between Obama, Castro (security.blogs.cnn.com)
- Obama shakes hands with Cuba’s Raul Castro (politico.com)
- About that handshake… (pullingtotheleft.wordpress.com)