- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 12, 2000

In Bill Clinton's White House world of relativity, a handshake may or may not be a handshake, depending on your definition of "hand" and "shake." By the same token, repressive dictators may or may not be pariahs, depending on whether they have the ability to flood America with boatloads of refugees.

Fidel Castro has that ability, as he showed during the infamous Mariel boatlift. It is therefore understandable why the White House flatly denied initially that President Clinton shook hands with him, only to reverse positions later. He probably cupped Fidel's "claw" in his hand which arguably is different from a hand-to-hand shake.

But putting definitions aside for a moment, and focusing on the act itself, the president's handshake with Fidel appears to be a first for a U.S. head of state. Indeed, much of Mr. Clinton's behavior towards Fidel is so ingratiating as to be perplexing. The personal involvement of a head of state in an immigration matter, as in the Elian Gonzalez case, was unprecedented. The raid to retrieve Elian, which the legal elite across the ideological spectrum has lambasted as illegal, was even more outrageously obliging.

Fidel himself has recognized the atypical treatment Mr. Clinton has given him and, as the New York Post reported Friday, has privately called him a "good boy" in the past. Surely, Mr. Clinton was flattered. The Cuban despot also acknowledged the significance of shaking hands with the U.S. president. "I feel satisfied by my respectful and civilized behavior with the president of the country that had been host of the summit," Mr. Castro told a group of admirers at the Riverside Church in Harlem, many of whom demonstrated their support by chanting "Hail Fidel Jail Giuliani," that is New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who dared to call Fidel a murderer. "I couldn't run away to prevent passing by that point," Fidel told the crowd, referring to the receiving line where he encountered Mr. Clinton. "It would have been extravagant and rude to do any other thing."

On the other hand, Fidel's treatment of dissidents doesn't have to meet that standard. As Amnesty International has reported, in August 1999 Cuban dissident Oscar Elias Biscet Gonzalez was beaten about the face and neck, burned with a cigarette, put in a single cell, forced to strip naked and beaten and kicked after he attempted to give a talk on civic resistance. Later Cuban authorities held him in a psychiatric hospital and tried to carry out psychological tests on him. He was arrested again this year for hanging the Cuban flag sideways down and trying to organize a protest march.

Then again, opinions do vary on the definition of the word "rude." And Mr. Clinton seemed to think that was no reason not to shake Fidel's hands, regardless of the grim ends for which the dictator has used them in the past.

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