By David Cruz
It was 50 years in the making and lasted less than a minute. But video and pictures of the handshake between President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro spread through social media and rippled through north Hudson County’s Cuban-American community. How, many asked, could Obama endorse the Castro government in such an open way?
“It’s an embarrassment for the free world,” said Jose Arango, the former assemblyman and now chairman of the Hudson County Republican Party. “Obama is more than just the president of the United States. He is the leader of the free world, so when you have the leader of the free world, the person who’s talking around the world about democracy and freedom, shaking hands with someone who oppresses his own people, I think the oppressor is going to take advantage of that.”
Congressman Albio Sires criticized Obama in a statement that read, in part: “Not only was this particular gesture not in harmony with Mandela’s philosophies, it was not in accordance with our national strategy in dealing with the communist regime.”
West New York Mayor Felix Roque, who’s also a doctor, left Cuba in 1967. Today, he was still talking about the handshake with his largely Cuban-American patients, suggesting that the handshake might actually be a positive first step.
“People are dying in this country from old age without seeing their homeland,” he said. “People are dying without seeing their relatives, or talking to their relatives. What I’m saying is that the old policy hasn’t worked. Let’s follow the suit that President Obama did and maybe there’ll be a change.”
North Bergen resident and Grammy-winning Latin Jazz artist Paquito D’Rivera came to the U.S. in 1980 after achieving success in Cuba as a musician. He says diplomacy is one thing, but “I bet that president Obama would never shake the hand of P.W. Botha, the last, racist, president of South Africa,” he said, “and I bet that he would never shake the hand of Augosto Pinochet. I am convinced.”
Still others say the gesture was merely a courtesy and that ultimately — after 50 years of Castros and of exiles risking their lives to leave Cuba — nothing is likely to come from it.
Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake. Actually thawing 50 years of Cold War animosity is going to take more than a warm exchange. But it’s clear that to many Cuban-Americans even a handshake is too much to give to the Castro government.