It was only a handshake, and by some reports, an impromptu one at that. But President Barack Obama's decision to shake hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa earlier this week created a firestorm of controversy about what the gesture actually meant.

Some, including Cuban-American politicians who have fought to maintain the over half-century U.S. embargo against Cuba, were outraged. Others, as USA Today reported, "just thought it was the nice thing to do." The White House has said the handshake was not planned.

We don't know what Mr. Obama was thinking when he decided to shake Mr. Castro's hand -- the gesture occurred as the two men were taking their seats before they both eulogized Mr. Mandela. But it underscores just how emotional and fragile Cuban-American relations still are 54 years after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

It's understandable that people affected by what happened in Cuba more than 50 years ago still have hard feelings. Little has changed in Cuba since Castro came to power. And by all accounts, Castro has been an oppressive leader. But it's time to look at the bigger picture, trying to establish some level of rapport with Cuba. That's something that many people are unwilling to do.

As expected, Mr. Obama's actions received widespread condemnation from his critics. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who is the son of Cuban immigrants, said the president "should have asked [Castro] about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba," according to USA Today.


Advertisement

Predictably, social media went ballistic with some comparing Mr. Obama's actions with the time he bowed to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2009. On the other hand, former President Jimmy Carter characterized Mr. Obama's handshake as "something significant," that could represents "an omen for the future," according to CNN.

Mr. Obama has taken some steps to ease restrictions on Cuba. He's made it easier for Cuban-Americans to visit their homeland and to send money to their relatives, gestures that have also been condemned by his critics. But the basic policies of the U.S. embargo against that island nation still remain in place.

As USA Today reported, some of the comments that Mr. Obama made while eulogizing Mr. Mandela's legacy could have been directed at the Cuban regime itself. Mr. Obama is the first American president to shake hands with a Cuban leader since 2000 (Bill Clinton was the last chief executive to do so). But it's not unusual for American presidents to be seen meeting with despots. Then Vice-President Richard Nixon was photographed shaking Fidel Castro's hand in 1959. There are also photos of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and former President Dwight Eisenhower meeting with Spanish Generalisimo Francisco Franco during the 1950s. So it's not as if Mr. Obama set a precedent with his actions.

The incident should be treated as a simple gesture and nothing more.