As he made his way along
the platform at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa, President Obama stopped briefly to shake hands and exchange a few words with Cuba's president Raul Castro.
The U.S. State Department says the handshake, one of many Obama did as he headed for his seat, was "unplanned." And if Obama had not, it would have been a very public, very visible snub that would have detracted from the memorial service for a leader who symbolized reconciliation.
But many read much, much more into that brief encounter. Reuters said it was "one of the most memorable images" from the service and asked rhetorically, "Could it also prove to be the most significant?"
The Cuban government said the handshake may show the "beginning of the end of U.S. aggressions."
Obama's critics were less generous. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., compared it to British leader Neville Chamberlain shaking Adolph Hitler's hand at Munich shortly before World War II.
Nor did the gesture sit well with the staunchly anti-Castro Cuban-American lobby. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., called shaking "the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro" a propaganda coup for the tyrant.
Maybe, though, it was simply a handshake. An act of politeness from one head of state to another, possibly because the alternative -- to have publicly ignored Castro -- would have been deemed as rudeness.
Or, possibly, it might have been an indication that Obama has come to the realization that continued animosity toward Havana doesn't make much sense anymore. We hope that's the case.
Cuba has been under the control of the Castros since 1959; that's 54 years spanning 11 American presidencies. Barack Obama wasn't even born when Fidel Castro came to power.
The U.S. embargo against Cuba, imposed during the Kennedy administration at the height of the Cold War, hasn't done much to isolate Havana although it has brought hardship to people living 90 miles from our shores. Restricting the freedom of Americans to travel to Cuba says little for our concept of liberty.
Under Fidel Castro's brother, the Cuban government has slightly relaxed its grip on the Cuban economy, allowing limited private ownership of land and homes, limited foreign travel and limited access to cell phones and computers. It is by no means a democracy, but neither are many nations -- China comes to mind -- with which the United States has diplomatic and economic relations.
The handshake between Raul Castro and Barack Obama was a feel-good moment for a crowd gathered more to celebrate Mandela's achievements than solemnly mourn his passing. It probably is pushing the limited symbolism of that moment to suggest that it foreshadows a U.S.-Cuban rapprochement.
Reaching out to Cuba, however, isn't a bad idea. Richard Nixon broke the ice with China by engaging it in ping pong. Maybe it's time for Barack Obama to send a baseball team to Havana.