The controversy surrounding the handshake between President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro at the memorial for Nelson Mandela speaks to the deplorable state of U.S.-Cuba relations.
Those who decry the handshake, which was merely a matter of protocol, lack historical perspective. During the late 1950s, responding to a wave of anti-Americanism throughout Latin America, the Eisenhower administration sought to recover U.S. prestige by introducing new policy guidelines toward the region. Henceforth, President Eisenhower decreed, the United States would extend a "distant handshake for dictators, and an enthusiastic abrazo for democratic leaders."
At the least, it was refreshing to see the civil impulses of the two leaders whose countries have had such uncivil relations for so long.
It would have been unseemly for Obama to have snubbed Castro, who was standing in line with other heads of state whom Obama was greeting one by one.
It also would have been embarrassing for the leader of the United States, with its shameful history of bolstering the apartheid regime of South Africa, to have snubbed the leader of Cuba, which did all it could to help Mandela defeat white rule.
But that didn't prevent Republicans from piling on Obama.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said Obama shouldn't have touched Castro's "bloody hand." Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said it propped up Castro's "dictatorial regime" and compared it to the handshake between the appeasing British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler.
For Obama, the furor over the handshake does not bode well. If a mere handshake arouses such outcries of betrayal, imagine the reaction to a substantive initiative designed to improve relations with Cuba.
For 43 years now, the United States has imposed a fruitless embargo on Cuba. It has brought great hardship to the people of that island nation, but it has done nothing to change the government to Washington's liking. Quite the contrary.
Unfortunately, the handshake hullabaloo shows that it will take uncommon political courage for the Obama administration to commit itself to improving relations with Cuba.
Louis A. Perez Jr. is the J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History at the University of North Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright Louis A. Perez Jr.
Photo: Flickr user The White House, creative commons licensed.