Should the president of the United States shake the hand of one of America’s sworn enemies? Is it appropriate to warmly greet a vicious dictator?
As reported on the front page of Wednesday’s Hamodia, President Barack Obama’s brief handshake with Cuba’s ruler Raul Castro had set off a fierce debate about the appropriateness of the encounter. Some praised the incident as a step forward towards a pragmatic new Cuba policy. Others downplayed the exchange, pointing out that it would have been a faux pas to make a scene at the funeral of a man famed for reconciliation with his enemies. Other pundits, as well some elected officials, expressed scathing criticism of the handshake, saying that the president was pandering to a communist dictator.
“It gives Raul some propaganda to continue to prop up his dictatorial, brutal regime, that’s all it is,” Arizona’s Republican senator and former presidential candidate John McCain insisted.
That comment was somewhat surprising, as McCain himself seemed to have no reservations about shaking hands with another brutal dictator, Muammar Gadhafi, during a 2009 visit to Libya.
The notion of a U.S. leader shaking hands with a foe is hardly a new phenomenon.
Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman had no compunction shaking hands with Soviet leader and mass murderer Josef Stalin; Dwight D. Eisenhower was photographed shaking hands with Spanish dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco and he hosted Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the White House.
A far more historic handshake occurred in February 1972, when President Richard Nixon met with Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong. It heralded a dramatic turnaround in U.S. policy regarding mainland China — and a personal reversal for Nixon, who had long held that international communism was “the major problem” facing Americans and free people everywhere.
Nixon considered this handshake to be of particular importance, an attempt to make up for an American snub that had occurred some 18 years earlier. During the 1954 East-West talks in Geneva on the situation in Indochina, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles made a point of refusing to shake hands with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, deeply insulting the Chinese leader.
Later on, President Gerald Ford would shake hands with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, and President George W. Bush did the same with Uzbekistan dictator Islam Karimo.
Time and time again, dependent on trade and security considerations, the United States has conveniently looked away from human rights abuses by some countries while focusing on others.
There is no doubt that Cuba is a repressive regime that is guilty of systematic human rights violations. So is China. According to the 2012 Human Rights Report issued by the U.S. State Department, repression and coercion are routine in China and are getting worse. “Efforts to silence and intimidate political activists and public interest lawyers continued to increase,” the report stated, and other human rights problems include “extrajudicial killings, including executions without due process; enforced disappearance and incommunicado detention, including prolonged illegal detentions at unofficial holding facilities known as ‘black jails’; and torture…”
Yet ever since Nixon’s 1972 trip, repeated American administrations on both sides of the political divide have looked away from how China treats its citizens, and pursued close trade ties with this communist country.
Saudi Arabia, which is a close U.S. ally, is hardly any better in the sphere of human rights. The state department reported that the Saudi government engaged in “torture and other abuses…denial of due process; arbitrary arrest and detention; and arbitrary interference with privacy, home, and correspondence…”
The real story isn’t about a handshake, but about America’s failed Cuban policy.
For more than five decades, in response to Cuban aggression and its nationalization of American-owned companies, the United States has been enforcing a trade embargo and a host of other sanctions against Cuba. It was long hoped that eventually this island located only 90 miles from Florida would cave in to the pressure, improve human rights and introduce democratic reforms.
Ten American presidents later, Cuba is still communist with a Castro at its helm. Opponents of the Castro regime — including a large community of Cuban immigrants now living in Florida — are vehemently opposed to the lifting of any sanctions, claiming that it would convey a message of American weakness and give up on any chance to pressure Cuba into meaningful reforms. Other analysts have argued that after 50 years of an unsuccessful embargo policy, it is time for a new approach.
Caught in the middle is an American Jew named Alan Gross, who has endured four years in prison in Cuba. He recently wrote a moving letter to President Obama, asking him to get personally involved in securing his release.
“With the utmost respect, Mr. President, I fear that my government — the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare — has abandoned me. Officials in your administration have expressed sympathy and called for my unconditional release, and I very much appreciate that. But it has not brought me home,” he wrote.
Cuba has previously expressed a willingness to negotiate the fate of Gross, but there is little indication that the Obama administration has actively pursued such a route.
The government has a fundamental obligation to do all it can to get Alan Gross out of prison without weakening America’s security interests, and it is time that bold and creative ways are found to achieve this goal. This calls for far more than a casual handshake.