Skip to main content

Don't misread Obama's handshake with Raul Castro

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
December 12, 2013 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Make no mistake, a handshake is just a handshake
  • Navarrette: President Obama's handshake with Raul Castro is no big deal
  • He says it does not mean that U.S.-Cuba relations will change for the better
  • Navarrette: Let's keep in mind the atrocious human rights record of Cuba

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter @rubennavarrette.

(CNN) -- Make no mistake. A handshake is just a handshake.

Fifty-year-old geopolitical conflicts don't turn on a dime. American foreign policy isn't an Etch A Sketch where you get to wipe the board clean in every news cycle. Between countries, as with people, grudges and hard feelings don't fade easily.

These things are true no matter how eager some in the media are to give President Barack Obama's sagging job approval rating -- just 41% in a recent Gallup Poll -- a boost by likening him to Nelson Mandela.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Seriously? There is far-fetched, and there is farcical. Comparing Obama to Mandela falls into the latter category.

And all because of a simple handshake? Obama briefly shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at the memorial for the former South African president. Now everyone in the media wants to know if there is a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations. The preferred narrative is that as Mandela healed the breach between white and black South Africans, perhaps Obama will now heal the relationship between the United States and Cuba.

A columnist has to know his limitations. Whenever I write about Cuba, the first thing I have to overcome is my sense of ambivalence. I'm a Mexican-American living in Southern California, not a Cuban-American living in South Florida. The only Castro brothers I get worked up about -- Julian, the mayor, and Joaquin, the congressman -- live in San Antonio, not Havana.

Not that I don't understand why my Cuban-American friends still hold a grudge and take a hard line against the Castro regime, just like their parents and grandparents before them.

Pres. Obama shakes hands with Raul Casto
Alan Gross wife: Handshake 'irrelevant'
Handshake heard in Cuba

For instance, I wasn't at all surprised that Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas -- whose Cuban-born father was imprisoned and tortured in the years before Fidel Castro rose to power and who traveled to South Africa to pay his respects to Mandela as a champion of freedom -- walked out during Raul Castro's speech.

Nor was I surprised when Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who was born in Cuba, cross-examined Secretary of State John Kerry during a congressional hearing.

"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," she said. "Raul Castro uses that hand to sign the orders to repress and jail democracy advocates."

Kerry insisted that there was no change in U.S. policy toward Cuba, and that Obama had been clear in his remarks at the memorial that all nations had the duty to uphold "the basic human rights of their people" and that Cuba isn't doing that.

Cuban-Americans are right to keep up their efforts to draw the attention of the international community to the atrocious human rights record of the Cuban government and the systematic abuse that the regime inflicts upon its own people.

Eventually, as I thought more about the handshake felt around the world, I finally put my finger on what was bothering me about the Obama-as-Reconciler-In-Chief storyline.

Three things.

First, aren't liberals and other Obama supporters -- the very people who are now advancing the idea that the handshake was an example of "Mandela-style" reconciliation -- the same folks who have spent the past few weeks focused on the botched rollout of Obamacare complaining that the expectations on Obama are too high? So now what do they do? They raise expectations even higher. This makes no sense.

Next, I'm not even sure that Obama knows how to bring people together. In his five years in office, he has mastered the art of division. He pits the poor against the rich, the elderly who help run up staggering deficits against the young who will someday have to pay them off.

Finally, I think of one other handshake between Obama and a Latin American leader that led, well, nowhere.

In April 2009, just a few months into his presidency, Obama shook hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americas. Chavez clashed often with George W. Bush, and so he probably couldn't have been happier to be rid of him.

But, just a little more than two years later, in December 2011, Chavez attacked Obama as a "clown" and an "embarrassment." He also sent a message to Obama, telling him that he should "focus on governing your country, which you've turned into a disaster" and "leave us in peace ... Go after your votes by fulfilling that which you promised your people."

What set Chavez off were comments that Obama made during an interview with the Caracas-based El Universal newspaper in which he criticized Venezuelans' business and political ties to Iran and Cuba and raised concerns about the Venezuelan government, which had, Obama said, "restricted the universal rights of the Venezuelan people, threatened basic democratic values and failed to contribute to security in the region."

Obama was in the right. Everything he said in that interview was true.

And, unlike handshakes that quickly fade from memory, the truth endures.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2201 GMT (0601 HKT)
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT