"Johannesburg handshake" - part of US president's political message

Photo: "Johannesburg handshake" - part of US president's political message / Commentary

Baku, Azerbaijan, Dec. 11

By Saeed Isayev - Trend:

Two shocks in a row. First, the world got shocked when former South African president Nelson Mandela passed away, and then another shock came at Mandela's memorial service, where millions saw two presidents, whose countries have been the enemies from the Cold War era, shake hands.

The U.S. and Cuba have not had diplomatic relations since 1961, and had started to worsen two years prior, when Fidel Castro first came to power in Cuba. Both states still use Switzerland as a mediator, whenever they need to talk something over.

Washington's economic embargo on Cuba which is over 50 years old still remains active today. Both countries have held multiple rounds of talks on restoring direct mail service and immigration issues, with more of those scheduled for January 2014.

It is indeed sad that Nelson Mandela's passing turned out to be the reason for Obama and Castro to shake hands. The U.S. officials said the handshake was not pre-planned. Nonetheless, the move was the first of its kind since former U.S. president Bill Clinton and Cuba's Fidel Castro shook hands at the UN in 2000.

On the other hand - some assess this gesture, and might be rightfully so, as nothing special. Obama was greeting the line of world leaders on his way to the podium for a speech. Had he not shaken hands with Castro, who was in the line, it might have been taken the wrong way.

After all, Obama also greeted the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, who earlier this year cancelled a state visit to Washington over concerns about alleged spying by the United States.

The U.S. president obviously had no choice, as people would've been discussing this anyway, either the handshake or it not happening at all.

Of course, following the handshake, a lot of analysts, politicians and officials have expressed their rather mixed views on what happened. One is for sure, the U.S. would carefully think over each word and each handshake for that matter, had it been an important political event with the world leaders.

In the case of Mandela's passing, the U.S. president acted in a civilized way, which was obviously appreciated by other world countries' leaders, present at the memorial.

We can assume that Barack Obama also used Mandela's memorial to send an important message to the leaders of those countries, with which the U.S. doesn't have very good relations.

Speaking at the funeral, Obama said that "There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with [Mandela's] struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people."

The message, at least, could've been targeted towards Raul Castro, and another country that the U.S. is quite worried about - Iran.

Iranian vice-president for executive affairs Mohammad Shariatmadari was representing Iran at the memorial, and obviously country's high-ranking official assessed both the Castro handshake, and Obama's words. Is the U.S. president trying to make some ground for improving and re-establishing relations with Cuba and Iran?

Back in 2007, Obama made a presidential campaign promise - to directly reach out to the U.S. foes, to improve relations. It has been working so far, as Obama spoke to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in September.

The "Johannesburg handshake", along with Obama's speech, could be seen as a message that the U.S. president was sending out. Towards the end of 2013, the U.S. has made an important move - striking a deal with Iran on its nuclear program, within the P5+1 group framework. "Johannesburg handshake" can be considered another one. Hopefully, this trend will continue in 2014.

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