President Obama’s handshake with Cuban dictator Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service made a lot of news. But does this flesh pressing even make a difference? The New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner writes that the handshake controversy is “amazingly dumb,” exclaiming, “Who cares if [Obama] shakes Castro’s hand?” But Mr. Chotiner is wrong—the handshake does matter and we should care, for two reasons.
First, this unprecedented public handshake between a U.S. president and a Cuban communist dictator grants legitimacy to the illegitimate regime that rules Cuba. As the President’s State Department wrote in its most recent “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” Castro’s Cuba “is an authoritarian state…[whose] principal human rights abuses were: abridgement of the right of citizens to change the government; government threats, intimidation, mobs, harassment, and detentions to prevent free expression and peaceful assembly; and a record number of politically motivated and at times violent short-term detentions… Most human rights abuses were official acts committed at the direction of the government.”
This is the government whose leader President Obama greeted with a handshake today—which, ironically, is Human Rights Day. It’s hard to think of a worse message that the President could have sent to oppressed peoples worldwide than shaking hands with a mass murderer who continues to abuse the human rights of the Cuban people. In addition to brutalizing its own citizens, the Castro regime is also a designated state sponsor of terrorism. And for three years, Cuba has unjustly imprisoned Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen suffering from cancer who worked as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, on trumped-up charges.
Now, Mr. Chotiner argues that “No American president, including Obama, will consistently shun unsavory world leaders.” Actually, sitting presidents often don’t meet with really bad dictators. No sitting U.S. president, with the exception of Bill Clinton, has met with either Castro brother, and Clinton did so only once, greeting Fidel at a United Nations gathering, and his administration initially denied that the handshake occurred. A CNN journalist noted that former Vice President Al Gore took extraordinary measures to avoid running into Fidel at Mandela’s inauguration in 1994. It’s not a coincidence that President Obama has never met with Iran’s Ahmadinejad or Syria’s Asad or Sudan’s Bashir or North Korea’s Kim père et fils. Indeed, the President pays his advance and protocol staff precisely to avoid such meetings.
And when an American president or other very senior official meets with an autocratic ruler, there’s usually a significant reason for it—often because the foreign government in question is a U.S. ally, as Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt generally was; or is a big strategic player with key overlapping interests, as with China; or is being rewarded with a meeting in exchange for something in return (former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice met with Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2008 as part of a quid pro quo to help boost Qaddafi’s international prestige after he surrendered his weapons of mass destruction in 2003).
And here’s the second, bigger problem with President Obama shaking Castro’s hand: what did the U.S. get in return? Nothing, according to a White House official who said the meeting was not “pre-planned.” The Cuban regime, in contrast, got a propaganda coup, posting a photo of the handshake on a regime-controlled website, reportedly with the caption “Obama greets Raul: may this image be the beginning of the end of the US aggressions against Cuba.” Public relations experts know how valuable such propaganda opportunities can be, especially for controversial governments with blood on their hands and whose strongest allies are other dictatorships.
Some may hope that the Obama administration will get something from Cuba in return for the Castro handshake—something like freedom for Alan Gross or the release of other political prisoners or an easing of the regime’s crackdowns on dissent. Such hope, however, is likely misplaced. When Obama met and shook hands with the now-dead Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez in 2009, Chavez soon offered to restore the presence of ambassadors in each other’s countries, and the State Department proclaimed, “This is a positive development that will help advance U.S. interests.” Just a year and a half later, however, Chavez denied a visa to the incoming U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, and that post remains vacant—and the Venezuelan government continues to violate its people’s human rights.
So there isn’t much reason to believe that the U.S. will receive anything in exchange for President Obama’s handshake with Raul Castro. The Cuban regime got a big P.R. win for free and will continue its anti-American, anti-freedom behavior, while Alan Gross and other political prisoners will likely continue to languish in Cuban prisons. Perhaps President Obama should have listened to his then-opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton, when she criticized him during the 2007-08 presidential campaign as “irresponsible and, frankly, naïve” for offering to meet with dictators without preconditions. As Mrs. Clinton said then, “I don’t want to see the power and prestige of the United States president put at risk by rushing into meetings with the likes of Chavez and Castro and Ahmadinejad.”