Soweto, the Johannesburg suburb where popular resistance to apartheid set off the revolution that changed South Africa and established Nelson Mandela as the father of a new country, is the most dangerous place on the continent this week. Anyone who ventures into the street risks being crushed by the hordes of official visitors trying to get in front of a camera.
It’s difficult for a hardworking president, prime minister, movie star, rap artist or mere dictator to set himself apart from the crowd of mourners, grievers and lamenters in town to exploit the ultimate photo-op. President Obama did it, however, with a warm handshake for one of the world’s last A-list despots and browbeaters.
Mr. Obama, who has established a unique reputation for bowing to potentates and others he imagines are above a mere president of the United States, offered his hand to Raul Castro, the reigning ruler of all he sees in Cuba and is sometimes thought to be the crueler of the cruel Castro brothers. The crueler brother shook it vigorously as his propagandists scribbled and his photographic retinue began to snap and grind. This time, Mr. Obama gave only the merest bow, which might not have been a bow but a stoop, to see exactly whose hand he was shaking on a dark and stormy day. Mr. Obama is a six-footer, and Raul Castro is a bit of a squirt.
Mr. Obama, like all presidents, employs handlers who steer him away from anyone whose hand he does not want to shake or touch. The brief flesh-to-flesh encounter was seen by millions on live television, and confirmed later by a U.S. official for those who could not believe their eyes. The Cuban government hailed the handshake as “a hopeful sign” that America was about to repent its evil ways. “May this … be the beginning of the end of the U.S. aggressions,” the Havana government said.
Despite the trembling in the earth that many insisted they felt in the presence of the shake, this was not the first time a Castro got a presidential touch. Fidel, the maximum leader who at 87 is feeble and ailing, got one from President Clinton at the United Nations in the year 2000. But there was no photograph, and the Clinton White House denied it happened until a witness to the deed finally emerged.
President Obama, though neither denying nor apologizing, nevertheless slipped the needle to the Cubans in later remarks. “Too many leaders” claim solidarity with Nelson Mandela’s example of mellowing, he said (without saying how many mellow leaders would be either too many or not enough), “but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.” But all agree it was an exploitable hand for the little guy.