Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Obama was right to shake hands with Raul Castro

By Paul Begala, CNN Contributor
updated 8:38 PM EST, Tue December 10, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama shook hands with Cuban leader Raul Castro at Mandela's memorial
  • Paul Begala: Like Reagan shaking Gorbachev's hands, Obama's act makes sense
  • He says even a simple handshake can be potent and transformative
  • Begala: It sends out a ripple of hope from the right side of history

Editor's note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House.

(CNN) -- There are certain moments of parental pride you know are coming: their first words, first steps, first date. And then there are the ones that blindside you. Like this: The night before the Nelson Mandela memorial service, my 13-year-old son said, "Dad, I'm going to wake up at 4 to watch the Mandela memorial."

I was so proud that he was so inspired. He's an all-star basketball player who mainlines ESPN. Now he wanted to get up in the middle of the night to watch CNN. Great success.

And when President Obama spoke for our nation, I was grateful we'd heard his remarks live. Obama captured President Mandela's remarkable capacity to awaken activism. Across oceans, across continents, across racial divides, across generations, Mandela sparked what Robert F. Kennedy described to the South African people as "ripples of hope."

Paul Begala
Paul Begala

One of those ripples of hope inspired a skinny college kid with a funny name who'd been more interested in rebounds than revolution. "Over 30 years ago," Obama said, "while still a student, I learned of Nelson Mandela and the struggles taking place in this beautiful land, and it stirred something in me. It woke me up to my responsibilities to others and to myself, and it set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today."

Same here. Unlike our president, I was always interested in politics. (As an athlete, I was small but slow.) But at the University of Texas, something deeper happened. The Black Student Alliance erected shanties on the West Mall. They challenged their fellow Longhorns to take responsibility for UT's role in apartheid. The university's endowment, flush with billions of petrodollars, invested in corporations that did business in South Africa.

That meant my ridiculously cheap tuition was in some way subsidized by profits from propping up apartheid. I learned names like Biko, Tambo, Sisulu, Tutu and of course, Mandela. Most important, I learned, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taught, that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," that we are all tied into "a seamless garment of destiny."

It was thrilling to be a part, however infinitesimal, of something larger than myself. Even then, with my government on the side of apartheid, I knew we students were on the right side of history. I saved my "Free Nelson Mandela" t-shirt all these years.

This week, I dug it out and showed my sons. I told them about the anti-apartheid movement and how, years later, I joined President Clinton in a White House meeting with Mandela, the prisoner-turned-president. We talked about the confidence that comes from knowing you're on the right side of history.

It is that same confidence that, I believe, was behind Obama's decision to shake the hand of Cuban leader Raul Castro.

Raul's brother, Fidel, had been a steadfast supporter of Mandela's African National Congress, even when the United States was on the wrong side of history. And Mandela never forgot a friend. That is not to excuse the horrendous human rights record of the Castro dictatorship. In his oppression, his censorship, his decades-long war on basic democratic rights, Fidel Castro was the anti-Mandela.

I believe Obama shook Raul Castro's hand for the same reason Reagan shook Gorbachev's or Mandela shook that of F.W. de Klerk, the last president of an apartheid South Africa: because he knows he's on the right side of history.

Years ago, I accompanied Clinton to a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Geneva. Moments before the President was to speak, I peeked out into the audience, gasped and sprinted back to Clinton's holding room. "Mr. President," I said gravely, "Fidel Castro is on the front row." No one had told us Castro would be there. Clinton was unflappable. "Good," he said. "Maybe he'll learn something."

Clinton stood before Castro and the other assembled world leaders and spoke confidently of "a revolutionary idea: that freedom, freely elected governments, free markets, the free flow of ideas, the free movement of people (are) the surest route to the greatest prosperity for the largest number of people."

I doubt Fidel actually learned much from Clinton's speech. And I am not naive enough to believe Raul Castro will emulate Mandela simply because Obama shook his hand. But I do believe in the transformative, unpredictable power of sending out a ripple of hope from the right side of history. And I was thrilled that Obama's ripple of hope bobbed over a sleepy seventh-grader in the predawn darkness, watching the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Begala.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT