WASHINGTON -- In the aftermath of the glorious and the absurd in commemorating Nelson Mandela, what did many Americans focus on with our own president, Barack Obama?
His elegant words? The sheer attractiveness of our First Couple? Not really. In fact, at least half of the coverage I have seen on TV has been a smart-aleck discussion of how the American president deigned to shake the hand of Cuban President Raul Castro. It is obvious, still, to many of our fellow citizens that this was a heinous act, letting the rest of the world in on some secret that the Obamas are really half-hidden commies.
But let us dig a little deeper into this distortion of American foreign policy before we pass judgment. Let us ponder what alternatives the American president had.
Leaders from all over the world were invited to the memorial for the South African prisoner/president/hero this week. Many were not from democratic countries, but it was hardly surprising that they should be included in the revelry and reverence.
In the beginning of the South African struggle for freedom in the mid-20th century, the young Mandela believed not in non-violence but in violent revolution; probably most of his comrades at that time were members of the Communist Party or other radical groups. His own African National Congress party included both Communists and radicals, and Mandela was admirably unwilling to abandon "old comrades" once he became president.
Thus, it was hardly surprising that, when Obama walked off the stage after his moving speech, he should have met a lineup of mixed-ideology leaders. In fact, unless I have missed something important, the first one in the line just happened to be Raul Castro. Obama shook his hand. Big deal. So far as we know, there was nothing more to it than that -- and, indeed, it would have been surprising if there had been.
But the Cuba critics and the anti-Castro fanatics have tried to make it appear -- Good Lord Almighty! -- that Obama might have grabbed poor Raul's hand and pumped it up and down. Maybe he kissed it, somehow in the shadows mistaking Raul's spare, bearded face for his wife's? Maybe they secretly signed an agreement to abolish the 61-year-old American blockade?
Frankly, it seems rather more obvious that President Obama, who is a polite and courteous man, especially compared to our new Republicans, quickly judged it was better to shake the Cuban's hand than to harrumph-harrumph at Raul and walk right by him. Imagine what that would have brought forth in critiques of American manners!
Lesson: Nothing is going to come out of this, no matter what the anti-Castro people in this country claim. Nothing is going to come out of it, because nothing went into it!
Moreover, for the anti-Castroites, there are other lessons to be painfully learned. One, the Cuban government likes to make a big thing of the American embargo, but the fact is, it isn't a big thing. The Castro brothers, in power since 1959, can buy what they need anywhere in the world -- they just don't have any money, which of course makes it difficult.
Two, Americans who persist in thinking that, when the Castro brothers die, as even they will, democracy will blossom, had better think again. The Cuban Transition Project at the University of Miami recently published a surprising and little-known bit of important news. Far from planning for democratic elections, or even a technocratic government, Gen. Raul Castro is grooming his own son, Alejandro Castro Espin, as his -- and Fidel's -- successor.
"Those who know (Espin) describe him as inflexible and arrogant," the paper reads. "He behaves like his uncle Fidel, intransigent, ordering around, and critical of the U.S." So much for real change.
Many strange and conspiratorial stories attend the Castros' relations with South Africa over the ages. In the late '70s, Havana sent thousands of troops to Angola to defend it from white South African armies attempting to take it over. Stories abound that the CIA, working with a pro-apartheid Israel at the time, may well have sold out Mandela to the white military when he first went to prison. Whatever the truth, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stayed away from the Mandela memorial, saying he did not have the money for the trip, poor guy.
Still, Mandela rose above loss and beyond conspiracy. The more one knows about his life, the more one realizes what a superior human being he was, especially compared to those who conspired so futilely against him.