A single, cordial gesture is unlikely to wash away bad blood dating back to the Eisenhower administration. But in a year that has seen both sides take small steps at improving the relationship, the handshake stoked talk of further rapprochement.
“On the one hand you shouldn’t make too much of this. Relations between Cuba and the United States are not changing tomorrow because they shook hands,” said Geoff Thale, a Cuba analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a U.S.-based think tank.
He contrasted the moment to a 2002 development summit where then-Mexican President Vicente Fox asked Fidel Castro to leave to avoid having him in the same room as U.S. President George W. Bush.
“What’s really striking here is the contrast,” Thale said. “It’s a modestly hopeful sign, and it builds on the small steps that they’re taking.”
“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,” said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American congresswoman from Florida who until January 2013 was chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Obama and Castro’s encounter was the first of its kind between sitting U.S. and Cuban presidents since Bill Clinton and Fidel shook hands at the U.N. in 2000.
It came as Obama greeted a line of world leaders on his way to the podium for a speech at the memorial.
Obama also had a cheek-kiss for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. The two have clashed over reports the National Security Agency monitored her communications, leading the Brazilian leader to shelve a state trip to the U.S. earlier this year.
In another potentially uneasy exchange, Obama briefly greeted Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose refusal to sign a security agreement with the U.S. before year’s end has irritated the administration.
Obama adviser Ben Rhodes said the handshakes were not planned in advance and didn’t involve any substantive discussion. “The president didn’t see this as a venue to do business,” he told reporters traveling back to Washington aboard Air Force One.
By shaking Castro’s hand, Obama sent a message of openness that echoes a speech he gave at a Democratic fundraiser in Miami last month.
“We have to continue to update our policies,” he said then. “Keep in mind that when (Fidel) Castro came to power, I was just born. So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.”