Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Obama was right to shake hands with Raul Castro

By Paul Begala, CNN Contributor
December 11, 2013 -- Updated 0138 GMT (0938 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama shook hands with Cuban leader Raul Castro at Mandela's memorial
  • Paul Begala: Like Reagan shaking Gorbachev's hands, Obama's act makes sense
  • He says even a simple handshake can be potent and transformative
  • Begala: It sends out a ripple of hope from the right side of history

Editor's note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House.

(CNN) -- There are certain moments of parental pride you know are coming: their first words, first steps, first date. And then there are the ones that blindside you. Like this: The night before the Nelson Mandela memorial service, my 13-year-old son said, "Dad, I'm going to wake up at 4 to watch the Mandela memorial."

I was so proud that he was so inspired. He's an all-star basketball player who mainlines ESPN. Now he wanted to get up in the middle of the night to watch CNN. Great success.

And when President Obama spoke for our nation, I was grateful we'd heard his remarks live. Obama captured President Mandela's remarkable capacity to awaken activism. Across oceans, across continents, across racial divides, across generations, Mandela sparked what Robert F. Kennedy described to the South African people as "ripples of hope."

Paul Begala
Paul Begala

One of those ripples of hope inspired a skinny college kid with a funny name who'd been more interested in rebounds than revolution. "Over 30 years ago," Obama said, "while still a student, I learned of Nelson Mandela and the struggles taking place in this beautiful land, and it stirred something in me. It woke me up to my responsibilities to others and to myself, and it set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today."

Same here. Unlike our president, I was always interested in politics. (As an athlete, I was small but slow.) But at the University of Texas, something deeper happened. The Black Student Alliance erected shanties on the West Mall. They challenged their fellow Longhorns to take responsibility for UT's role in apartheid. The university's endowment, flush with billions of petrodollars, invested in corporations that did business in South Africa.

That meant my ridiculously cheap tuition was in some way subsidized by profits from propping up apartheid. I learned names like Biko, Tambo, Sisulu, Tutu and of course, Mandela. Most important, I learned, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taught, that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," that we are all tied into "a seamless garment of destiny."

It was thrilling to be a part, however infinitesimal, of something larger than myself. Even then, with my government on the side of apartheid, I knew we students were on the right side of history. I saved my "Free Nelson Mandela" t-shirt all these years.

This week, I dug it out and showed my sons. I told them about the anti-apartheid movement and how, years later, I joined President Clinton in a White House meeting with Mandela, the prisoner-turned-president. We talked about the confidence that comes from knowing you're on the right side of history.

It is that same confidence that, I believe, was behind Obama's decision to shake the hand of Cuban leader Raul Castro.

Raul's brother, Fidel, had been a steadfast supporter of Mandela's African National Congress, even when the United States was on the wrong side of history. And Mandela never forgot a friend. That is not to excuse the horrendous human rights record of the Castro dictatorship. In his oppression, his censorship, his decades-long war on basic democratic rights, Fidel Castro was the anti-Mandela.

I believe Obama shook Raul Castro's hand for the same reason Reagan shook Gorbachev's or Mandela shook that of F.W. de Klerk, the last president of an apartheid South Africa: because he knows he's on the right side of history.

Years ago, I accompanied Clinton to a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Geneva. Moments before the President was to speak, I peeked out into the audience, gasped and sprinted back to Clinton's holding room. "Mr. President," I said gravely, "Fidel Castro is on the front row." No one had told us Castro would be there. Clinton was unflappable. "Good," he said. "Maybe he'll learn something."

Clinton stood before Castro and the other assembled world leaders and spoke confidently of "a revolutionary idea: that freedom, freely elected governments, free markets, the free flow of ideas, the free movement of people (are) the surest route to the greatest prosperity for the largest number of people."

I doubt Fidel actually learned much from Clinton's speech. And I am not naive enough to believe Raul Castro will emulate Mandela simply because Obama shook his hand. But I do believe in the transformative, unpredictable power of sending out a ripple of hope from the right side of history. And I was thrilled that Obama's ripple of hope bobbed over a sleepy seventh-grader in the predawn darkness, watching the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Begala.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 2200 GMT (0600 HKT)
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1657 GMT (0057 HKT)
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1347 GMT (2147 HKT)
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1358 GMT (2158 HKT)
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2014 GMT (0414 HKT)
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1821 GMT (0221 HKT)
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT