Attending a memorial for former South African President Nelson Mandela, President Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro. Secretary of State John Kerry defended Obama by saying, "He didn't choose who's there." Yet the encounter was surely revealing about the past, and maybe about the future.
The event reverberated with history, much of it unknown or downplayed in the United States. Speaking in Cuba in 1991, Nelson Mandela testified to that nation's contributions to South Africa's freedom struggle. They were evident in the recognition granted President Castro at Mandela's memorial.
"What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations with Africa?" Mandela asked in 1991. "Your presence and the reinforcement of your forces in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale were of truly historic significance," he told his Cuban listeners. "The crushing defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale was a victory for the whole of Africa. [It] broke the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressors [and] inspired struggling people inside South Africa ... The defeat ... made it possible for me to be here today! ...Cuito Cuanavale has been a turning point in the struggle to free the continent and our country from the scourge of apartheid!"
Cuban and Angolan troops on March 23, 1988, defeated South African invaders at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola. They had repelled earlier invasions directed at undoing Angolan independence. Between 1975 and 1990, 300,000 volunteer Cuban troops fought in Southern Africa; 2,000 of them died.
Organizers of Mandela's memorial selected President Raul Castro as the speaker who would close the international homage to Mandela. They had placed five other foreign speakers together on the dais, including President Obama. Cuban analyst Iroel Sánchez suggests they placed Castro "in such a way that an encounter [with Obama] was inevitable."
Most media coverage of the ceremonies overlooked other inconvenient truths. The United States and its NATO allies "were the most firm economic, military, and political supporters of the apartheid regime in South Africa." Mandela remained on the U.S. terrorism watch list until 2008. A CIA agent probably supplied the tip leading to Mandela's arrest in 1962. Official U.S. adulation of Mandela's memory is thus on shaky ground, notwithstanding the four past and present U.S. presidents on hand at the observances.
Reacting to the handshake, Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen interrupted Secretary of State Kerry's congressional testimony on Iran. "[W]hen 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, adding, "Raul Castro uses that hand to sign the orders to repress and jail democracy advocates." Republican Sen. John McCain claimed a precedent: "Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler."
These responses differ from the silence greeting President Clinton's handshake with President Fidel Castro at the United Nations in 2000. Maybe they reflect legislators' anxieties over Obama administration inclinations to relax anti-Cuban hostilities. Their extreme venom suggests speculation about possible warming of relations may be true. If so, the handshake could end up having been a signpost to the future. "What happened in Soweto [at the memorial]," opines Iroel Sánchez, "is one drop in a glass that is more and more full and is pushing in the direction of change."
At a Miami fundraiser on November 8, President Obama told wealthy Cuban Americans that, "[We] have to continue to update our policies ... 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.
And pressure mounts for his administration to negotiate with Cuba on a crucial issue. Four years ago Cuba jailed USAID contractor Alan Gross because he illegally provided opposition groups with sophisticated communication equipment. Gross' wife and her allies want the Obama administration to negotiate his release. That would surely involve discussion of an exchange for the four remaining Cuban Five anti-terrorists lodged in U.S. jails.
Interviewed on Dec. 15 by CNN, Secretary of State Kerry spoke of "back-door negotiations" in which "I have personally been involved" along with "my undersecretary of political affairs." "The White House has been involved."
In any event, "most foreign orators at Nelson Mandela's funeral represented big powers," according to Sánchez. Cuba, "the moral power the United States has been unable to break" was different. "Its foreign policy founded on principles is one reason why Washington has undertaken to defeat the revolution of Fidel and Raul Castro."
Photo: In this image from TV, President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at the FNB Stadium in Soweto, South Africa, at the memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela, Dec. 10, 2013. The handshake between the leaders of the two Cold War enemies came during a ceremony that's focused on Mandela's legacy of reconciliation. Hundreds of foreign dignitaries and world heads of states gathered with thousands of South African people to celebrate the life, and mark the death, of Nelson Mandela, who has became a global symbol of reconciliation. AP/SABC Pool