Why Castro, but Not Mugabe?

President Barack Obama sparked controversy by shaking the hand of Cuban dictator Raúl Castro on Tuesday at the memorial for Nelson Mandela in South Africa. He avoided greeting Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe, however. Assuming that these two gestures were by design, and not by accident–the State Department is quite particular about protocol–what is the real difference (if any) between Castro and Mugabe?

Answer: there is almost no difference at all. The Castro regime expropriated landowners and executed political opponents in the 1960s, while Mugabe began in earnest in the early 2000s (he carried out massacres against the people of Matebeleland in the 1980s). If anything, Zimbabwe is slightly more free than Cuba. It has vestiges of an independent media, and a political opposition that at least enjoys some representation.

What makes these two regimes different, from Obama’s perspective, is that Cuba has identified the United States as its nemesis, whereas Zimbabwe has not. The Mugabe regime is not pro-American by any stretch of the imagination, but most of the leader’s foreign fulminations are directed at Britain, the former colonial power. Obama seems drawn to those regimes that have gone out of their way to make America the problem.

It is clear that Obama wants to show these regimes that he is making a break from the postures of previous American leaders. Partly, he is motivated by a sincere (if naive) belief that these regimes will open up if they are shown that America need not be an enemy. And partly–perhaps even mostly–he is motivated by egotism: he wants to be recognized as different, special, even superior to the nation he leads.

Mugabe has nothing to offer him on that score. If Obama were to shake hands with Mugabe, the gesture would look like exactly what it is: appeasement of the worst kind. When he shakes hands with Castro, however, he can claim to be marking a change in American policy, making a statement that is larger than the craven nature of the gesture itself, adopting a posture that the media will applaud. And so they did.