- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The spotlight on President Obama’s day in Johannesburg marking the life of the late South African leader Nelson Mandela was stolen by a controversial handshake and an oddly timed “selfie.”

Mr. Obama found himself under sharp fire from U.S. opponents of the regime in Cuba for his decision to shake the hand of Cuban President Raul Castro — the brother of Fidel Castro — on his way to the podium in South Africa, and sparked another uproar on social media hours later with a jovial self-portrait-by-cellphone with the prime ministers of Denmark and Britain during a memorial service for Mr. Mandela.

Republican lawmakers with Cuban roots led the charge over the handshake, which White House officials said later was not a premeditated move, asserting that Mr. Castro and his brother Fidel are ruthless dictators likely to profit from the Obama handshake by turning it into a pro-communist Cuba propaganda stunt. The U.S. has maintained an economic embargo on the island for more than a half-century.

“If the president was going to shake his hand, he should have asked him about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and the son of Cuban-American immigrants.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, also a Cuban-American from Florida and a former chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, grilled Secretary of State John F. Kerry about the incident during an unrelated hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

“Mr. Secretary, sometimes a handshake is just a handshake, but when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant,” Ms. Ros-Lehtinen said.


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“Raul Castro uses that hand to sign the orders to repress and jail democracy advocates. In fact, right now as we speak, Cuban opposition leaders are being detained and they’re being beaten while trying to commemorate today — which is International Human Rights Day,” she said. “They will feel disheartened when they see these photos.”

Mr. Kerry was quick to defend the president, noting that Mr. Obama shook Mr. Castro’s hand while greeting a line of world leaders at the memorial for Mr. Mandela, a world-respected peace and human rights leader who died last week at age 95.

“Today is about honoring Nelson Mandela,” said Mr. Kerry. “The president’s at an international funeral with leaders from all over the world. He didn’t choose who’s there.”

The secretary of state noted the speech Mr. Obama made during the memorial service, in which the president urged the world’s leaders to honor Mr. Mandela’s struggle for freedom by upholding the basic human rights of their people.

But Ms. Ros-Lehtinen pressed Mr. Kerry on whether he believed that “Raul Castro is upholding the basic human rights.”

“No, absolutely not,” Mr. Kerry responded.

Mr. Obama also shook hands and kissed the cheeks of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who canceled a state dinner at the White House over her anger with revelations that the National Security Agency had spied on her.

President Clinton and Fidel Castro shook hands at a private U.N. luncheon in New York in 2000, but there was no photo of the meeting and the White House at first denied it happened.

Cuban state-run television broadcast Tuesday’s encounter without commentary, simply as part of the footage of Mr. Castro’s speech at the tribute in South Africa. The Reuters news agency reported from Havana that many Cubans were heartened by the gesture after decades of frosty relations between the nations.

“I never imagined such a thing could happen,” Yesniel Soto, a 25-year-old government worker, told the news agency. “I see it as something that has begun to change, a change we are all hoping for.”

However, one prominent Cuban-American politician was not so taken with Mr. Castro’s appearance. Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican and a frequent critic of Mr. Obama, walked out of the service when Mr. Castro began speaking.

“Just as Mandela was released after 27 years in prison, Castro should finally release his political prisoners; he should hold free elections, and once and for all set the Cuban people free,” Cruz spokesman Sean Rushton said in a statement.

Mr. Cruz was among 22 members of Congress on the taxpayer-funded trip, all but two of whom were Democratic House members. The other Republican was Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois, and most of the Democrats were members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Another distraction

The presidential selfie proved another distraction.

Photographs posted on the Internet showed a smiling Mr. Obama taking the shot while holding a smartphone at arm’s length. In one shot, first lady Michelle Obama is shown staring into the distance beside the president.

In another, Mrs. Obama has what might be read as a disapproving look on her face as her husband engages in a jovial exchange with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

Etiquette advisers have frowned on the practice of selfies at funerals, although the Mandela event was technically a memorial service. But the incident gave critics fresh ammunition to attack the president.

“It’s not [about] the death of Mandela anymore,” conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh said. “This is about Barack Obama assuming Mandela’s place as a great whatever on the world stage. That’s what the soap opera is.

Away from the hype over the photos, most U.S.-Cuba policy analysts cautioned against blowing the Obama-Castro handshake out of proportion.

The U.S. continues to enforce an embargo on trade with Cuba. Mr. Obama in 2011 eased some of the economic and travel restrictions that had been enforced by President George W. Bush, but relations between the two nations remain tense.

“No one should read too much into the handshake — it wasn’t the signal that the Obama administration is about to end the embargo, nor was it a signal that President Obama doesn’t care about freedom of speech or freedom of association in Cuba,” said Geoff Thale, program director at the Washington Office on Latin America.

“It was a gesture of decency at the funeral of a man who was famous both for his leadership in the struggle for black freedom in South Africa and for his support for reconciliation among enemies,” said Mr. Thale. “At the same time, and in the context of a series of small steps forward in the U.S.-Cuban relationship over the last year, it was a modestly hopeful gesture.”

“It should not be blown out of proportion,” added Ricardo Herrero, deputy director at the Cuba Study Group. “President Obama has already demonstrated his willingness to improve relations with Cuba on the basis of U.S. interests and the well-being of the Cuban people, through the policy changes he has advanced.”

Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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