It was the simplest gesture, a handshake, which sparked millions of conversations around the world. The handshake that took place between President Barack Obama and Raul Castro put the idea of change in everyone’s mind. For the Afro-Cuban community, the handshake was a sign of hope. Hope that the five-decade-long economic embargo plaguing their country could be at an end. Even days later, we all lay in wait to understand and comprehend what the handshake actually meant.
The reason the handshake comes as a surprise to many is obvious given the tension that has been barricading and pervading all relations between Cuba and the U.S. for several decades. It would seem, in fact, that only one other time in the past several decades has a U.S. President ventured to shake the hand of a Cuban leader was one between former President Bill Clinton and Cuban Communist leader Fidel Castro, whose 2006 operation for intestinal bleeding forced him to step down from office and hand power to his brother , Raul, in 2008. The older Castro expressed his approval for the handshake, saying:
I congratulate Comrade Raul for his brilliant performance [at the memorial], and especially for his firmness and dignity when with a friendly but firm greeting to the head of government of the United States he said in English, ‘Mr. President, I am Castro’.”
However, the White House dismissed the handshake and regarded it as an unplanned pleasantry. Unfortunately for the White House, the world doesn’t feel the same. In its debate among online college forums and the overwhelming number of tweets reacting to the simple and brief action, one key piece of the puzzle seems to be missing: it was a funeral. More specifically, it was the funeral for a man who gave his life to the service of others with an idea that all should be treated equally.
So was the handshake merely an attempt to treat one another as equals in a setting which dictates civility of the utmost kind when honoring a man who would have done nothing less? No one is talking about all of the other hands Obama shook right after Castro’s.
However, the symbol of the handshake is often used to make a political statement. In an article written about the symbolic meaning of handshakes, the National Post notes that “the handshake is one of the highest forms of symbolic currency with the power to unite, divide, seal deals and broker peace. It is a simple gesture that can be more informative to people than a whole host of grand speeches.”
Is it in fact possible that these two were brought together intentionally and, yes, politically? If being at the same event is unavoidable, actually conversing could still be bypassed. But here, it was embraced. It was intentional. And there was someone to take a picture.
And this time, a handshake may actually be a sign of further diplomatic involvement. Last month in Miami, Obama indicated it may be time to loosen it’s trade restrictions with Cuba, which has been under a U.S. trade embargo for more than half a century, questioning whether the restrictions are still an appropriate way to deal with the Communist-controlled island nation.
With President Obama’s speech still ringing in our ears from a funeral service honoring the late Nelson Mandela, one can safely assume that the man they were honoring was at the forefront of their interaction, bringing some symbol of peace and hope to a world that desperately needs it.