- - Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake. Sometimes it symbolizes much more. Let us not forget how the world watched and waited intently to see if there would be a handshake between President Obama and Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani at this year’s U.N. General Assembly.

Whether it is the brutal Castro regime 90 miles off our coast or thousands of miles away, we must scrutinize Mr. Obama’s handshake with Raul Castro in its totality, just as we did with the handshake that never was between Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani. This action must be recognized for what it is: a mixed message to the people of Cuba, who are currently suffering under this dictatorship, and a propaganda coup for the Castro regime that will seek to exploit this situation to further undermine the democratic freedoms and human rights that the Cuban people deserve.

Cuba, like Iran, is designated by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism that harbors terrorists and U.S. fugitives, holds hostage a U.S. citizen, and routinely undermines our national-security interests. This is the same Castro regime that in August was caught red-handed sending weapons and military equipment to North Korea in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, and the same regime responsible for the killings of three U.S. citizens and one U.S. resident when it ordered the attack against the Brothers to the Rescue planes over international waters in 1996. While shaking a brutal dictator’s hand that is stained with the blood of thousands of Cubans may be viewed as a mere cordial gesture by some, it is an action that is deeply painful to those of us who have experienced and fled the cruelty of the Castro regime, many of whom live in my congressional district.

While Mr. Obama was shaking Raul Castro’s hand, more than 150 Cuban pro-democracy leaders were being rounded up and thrown in prison in Cuba for exercising their rights of free speech, free press and free association. It is unfortunate, but not surprising, that this roundup occurred on International Human Rights Day, considering that these courageous heroes’ attempt to exercise the fundamental freedoms observed on this day caused them to be thrown into jail.

Many in the international community and the mainstream media ignore the reality of the dire situation in Cuba. It cannot be disputed that the regime continues to have an abysmal human rights record and continues to harass and beat members of peaceful pro-democracy organizations such as the Ladies in White and the Patriotic Union of Cuba.

Words matter, but actions speak louder than words. This handshake was but another lamentable misstep in the conduct of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy throughout his time in office. For example, in his first inauguration speech, Mr. Obama said: “To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West: Know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

I agree that leaders should not blame their nations’ shortcomings on the West. But Cuba under the Castros and the Venezuelan regime under Nicolas Maduro continue to do just that. Mr. Maduro continues to blame the United States for its own domestic problems and deteriorating economic situation, but the Obama administration desperately seeks a relationship with his regime. Despite Mr. Maduro having won his election through fraud and that he is ruling by decree, and despite the fact that he continues to oppress his own people, has expelled U.S. diplomats, and continues to threaten the opposition with cooked-up charges and arrests, the administration wants closer ties with him.

Meanwhile in Cuba, while temporary detentions and oppression continue to rise, the president granted the Castro brothers a huge concession: economic relief through tourism travel. As a result of the Obama administration’s easing of travel restrictions to Cuba for tourism, the Castro regime is now receiving a large influx of money during a time that Cuba’s economy is failing, which in turn it can use to continue its oppression of those who are yearning for democratic freedoms. Does this plan sound familiar? It has not worked in Cuba, and it will not work in Iran, where the president wishes to give the Iranian regime an infusion of billions of dollars that may be used to further sponsor terrorist activities against U.S. citizens.

Ultimately, the Castro regime has shown its true colors time and time again. Engagement, accommodation and appeasement by the Obama administration have only emboldened Havana’s decrepit dictators. The Cuban regime’s policy is to lie and mislead the international community to achieve its selfish goals, while amassing huge personal fortunes for regime elites as the people of the island suffer.

As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and gestures matter. Shaking Raul Castro’s hand, while dismissed by some as only a handshake, not only emboldens the regime, but will not stop the atrocious acts against the Cuban people. Mr. Obama extended his hand to Raul Castro, even though the Castro brothers are unwilling to unclench their fist over the Cuban people.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, is chairman emeritus of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and current chairman of its Middle East and North Africa subcommittee.