Why Did Obama Shake the Hand of My Father's Killer, Raul Castro?

Why Did Obama Shake the Hand of My Father's Killer, Raul Castro?

By Toby Harnden - December 17, 2013

MIAMI, FL - When President Barack Obama shook hands with his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service last week, American diplomats insisted the encounter held no significance.

“Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake,” said Roberta Jacobson, the US State Department’s top Latin America official.

She told The Sunday Times, during a visit to Miami, that the meeting with the communist leader had been “accidental” and unplanned. “Leaders were lined up on the dais and very much in the spirit of the day he greeted each of those leaders in turn,” she said.

But in nearby Little Havana, the heart of Miami’s 1.6m Cuban-American community, there was suspicion and dismay at Obama’s warmth towards Castro, 82, who was appointed president in 2008 by his ailing brother Fidel, now 87.

Rosa Maria Paya, 24, fled the island this summer, a year after her father, Oswaldo Paya, a leading opposition activist who demanded an end to one-party rule, was killed. She said his car had been repeatedly rammed by a vehicle with a Cuban intelligence agent behind the wheel.

“They tried to kill him the month before and this time they succeeded. They have never released the autopsy report. The rest of my family left after the intimidation and threats increased. There was a call to my house at 4am warning they would kill me.

“President Obama was shaking the hand of the killer of my father. People think that he is more reasonable than Fidel but they are mistaken. Violence has increased under Raul.”

Miriam de la Peña’s son Mario, 24, was among four pilots killed in 1996 when two Cessna aircraft from Brothers to the Rescue, an anti-Castro humanitarian group, were shot down by a Cuban air force MiG jet.

A tape later emerged of what sounded like the voice of Raul Castro, then defence minister, saying: “I made it clear that had to be decentralised if we wanted it to be effective, so we gave the power to five generals.”

De la Peña, who left Cuba when she was 12, said: “Raul Castro has the blood of many people on his hands and one of those people was my boy.

“I know how communism works. It was propaganda for the outside world. Of course, in Cuba people didn’t know about it because if the evil Yankees are blamed for all Cuba’s problems then why is he shaking hands with their leader? It’s a double game.”

Speaking from Havana, the Cuban human rights activist Sara Marta Fonseca said the handshake had been played down locally. “We have been shown by Castro to feel hate towards all US presidents . . . in Cuba, no act of solidarity from the Americans is recognised.”

Frank Calzon, a veteran anti-Castro activist who leads the Centre for a Free Cuba, pointed out that more than 150 democracy activists were violently detained during meetings held to mark International Human Rights Day.

“I’m sure President Obama meant well but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Policies of unilateral concessions to Havana have always failed. It is troublesome that he was shaking the hand of Raul Castro on the day Raul Castro’s thugs were at work.”

Calzon noted that state funerals were planned to the smallest detail and it was likely Obama knew he would meet Castro — just as aides made sure he was not confronted by Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

Last month, Obama told party donors in Miami that the US “had to be creative and we have to be thoughtful” about Cuba policy while a US diplomat briefed that there was now “a willingness on both sides to engage more pragmatically”. A former senior US official said Obama’s Cuba policy was a futile one of “aggressive niceness”.

Jacobson conceded it was a “hideous irony” that Mandela’s memorial had coincided with Cuban violence. But she rejected any notion that the handshake added to the irony.

“No,” she said. “The president was treating everybody with courtesy and then went to the lectern and spoke about our principles.” 


Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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