By Louis A. Perez Jr.

The controversy surrounding the handshake between President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro at the memorial for Nelson Mandela speaks to the deplorable state of U.S.-Cuba relations.

Those who decry the handshake, which was merely a matter of protocol, lack historical perspective. During the late 1950s, responding to a wave of anti-Americanism throughout Latin America, the Eisenhower administration sought to recover U.S. prestige by introducing new policy guidelines toward the region. Henceforth, President Eisenhower decreed, the United States would extend a "distant handshake for dictators, and an enthusiastic abrazo for democratic leaders."

At the least, it was refreshing to see the civil impulses of the two leaders whose countries have had such uncivil relations for so long.

It would have been unseemly for Obama to have snubbed Castro, who was standing in line with other heads of state whom Obama was greeting one by one.

It also would have been embarrassing for the leader of the United States, with its shameful history of bolstering the apartheid regime of South Africa, to have snubbed the leader of Cuba, which did all it could to help Mandela defeat white rule.

But that didn't prevent Republicans from piling on Obama.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said Obama shouldn't have touched Castro's "bloody hand." Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said it propped up Castro's "dictatorial regime" and compared it to the handshake between the appeasing British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler.

For Obama, the furor over the handshake does not bode well. If a mere handshake arouses such outcries of betrayal, imagine the reaction to a substantive initiative designed to improve relations with Cuba.

For 43 years now, the United States has imposed a fruitless embargo on Cuba. It has brought great hardship to the people of that island nation, but it has done nothing to change the government to Washington's liking. Quite the contrary.

Unfortunately, the handshake hullabaloo shows that it will take uncommon political courage for the Obama administration to commit itself to improving relations with Cuba.

Louis A. Perez Jr. is the J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History at the University of North Carolina. He can be reached at

Copyright Louis A. Perez Jr.

Photo: Flickr user The White House, creative commons licensed.


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Trump's politics are not the problem.

The fiery Milwaukee Sheriff is on the shortlist to head the Department of Homeland Security.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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