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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Distraction of a Handshake in South Africa

The Associated Press broadcast the handshake between Presidents Obama and Cuba’s President Castro at Nelson Mandela’s service in South Africa on Dec. 10.

Sometimes what happens on the sidelines of a main event attended by world leaders can steal a bit of the spotlight.

Such was the brief moment when President Obama shook hands with President Raúl Castro of Cuba while both men attended the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa on Tuesday. Reactions to the handshake, shared online, ranged from whether it meant the beginning of a thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba to fears the sideshow would hijack the main focus of the ceremony.

As my colleagues reported, the gesture is sure to be dissected for its symbolic and political significance. Mr. Castro is the brother of the longtime American adversary Fidel Castro, and while ties between the two countries have been less frosty of late, the Castro brothers remain divisive figures for many Americans, especially Cuban-Americans in Florida.

The moment was captured on live television, broadcast after 6 a.m. Eastern time in the United States. But the commentary sprang up and grew as it was replayed during the day long after the ceremony was over, and as photographs were shared widely online.

Getty’s Chip Somodevilla captured the image of the handshake, distributed by Getty Images News. A photograph taken by Reuters in which the two men appeared to also be exchanging words was also extensively cited.

Donald E. Collins, who has taught at University of Maryland-University College and written about race in the United States, conveyed some of the sentiment.

Politico’s Ben White injected a bit of sarcasm into the debate.

The last time an American president shook hands with a Cuban president was in 2000, when Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro clasped hands on the edges of a luncheon for a meeting of world leaders at the United Nations in New York City. The New York Times’s David E. Sanger reported on the handshake accompanied by small talk, providing one sentence of context that suggests not much might have changed in the past dozen years:

“But in relations with Cuba, even empty talk is brimming with symbolism.”

Contrary to the Clinton-Castro handshake, which took place away from the cameras and was confirmed days later by the White House, the handshake between Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro could not escape the scrutiny of live television. While many bemoaned the attention that would be diverted from Mr. Mandela, others wrote that the handshake was a gesture that the former South African leader would support.

A South African woman echoed that thought, using the term of endearment ‘Tata’ in the Xhosa language for Mr. Mandela.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who also attended the remembrance service, was optimistic.

Michael Shear of The New York Times, who was accompanying the president to South Africa, reported that White House officials declined to offer any explanation of the handshake or confirm that there had been a discussion about whether to offer one.

The gesture seemed to have been ignored in Cuba, at least officially. Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs just posted the text of Mr. Castro’s speech. The blogger Yoani Sanchez posted on her Twitter account @yoanifromcuba that the handshake was not broadcast.

But the gesture was of special interest for Cuban exiles in the United States, and news organizations in Florida naturally took note. The Miami New Times curated a collection of reactions, while referring to a post on babalu, a Cuban exiles blog, that said Mr. Obama gave “credence and recognition to a vile and bloody dictatorial regime responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of innocent people.”

Marc A. Caputo, a political writer for The Miami Herald, wrote:

Most didn’t hear the speech broadcast in the U.S. this morning. They won’t read it. And there’s a far better chance they’ll see the photo or video of the handshake. Twitter is abuzz. The partisans have donned their armor of lazy talking points, hoisted their tired 140-character standards of dysfunction.

A few have noted the president “bowed” to Castro. It’s a function of the president being so much taller than the little dictator, and being decorous at an event on the world stage. It just didn’t look like an act of obeisance.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about the handshake. But we should talk about the speech as well.

Follow Christine Hauser on Twitter @christineNYT.