The handshake between President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro is being described as a spontaneous gesture. However, the State Department has a large bureaucracy devoted to diplomatic protocol that would surely have kept Obama from greeting Castro if that is what the White House chose. In addition, a security expert speaking in advance of the rally made clear that leaders could arrange to avoid such meetings.
“[The heads of state] can be seated alphabetically to avoid [Zimbabwean President] Robert Mugabe sitting next to [British Prime Minister] David Cameron; and [Cuban President] Raul Castro Ruz sitting next to [US President] Barack Obama,” said George Nicholls, a security expert interviewed by the Zimbabwe Mail.
Notably, he assumed that President Obama would arrange to be seated far away from the Cuban dictator.
The U.S. media was very excited by Obama’s greeting with Castro, heralding it as a gesture of “reconciliation.” However, President Obama is not the first U.S. president to shake hands with a Cuban communist leader. President Bill Clinton shook hands with Fidel Castro in 2000. That handshake did not lead to a significant warming of U.S.-Cuban relations, nor did it encourage any significant political reforms by the Castro regime.