A handshake is always appropriate

By Duane A. Beyal
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, Jan. 2, 2014

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When I was young, my father often took us with him when he traveled out to the Eastern Agency to see our relatives. Along the way, he stopped at every other house or hogan, stepped out, and shook hands.

A handshake is an expression of respect, whether done with a limp hand or a firm grip. Everyone shakes hands -- or nearly everyone.

But when is a handshake more than a handshake?

A controversy was created when President Barack Obama shook the hand of Cuba's president, Raul Castro, on Dec. 10 at a memorial ceremony for former South African President Nelson Mandela. Raul is the brother of Fidel Castro, the founder of the revolution 50 years ago that brought his Communist rule to power.

The White House played down the incident saying it was not pre-planned and that Obama's focus was on the memorial for Mandela. But the news media and the Internet had plenty to say about the notorious handshake.

"Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who had fled Cuba with her family when she was a child, "but when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant."

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said, "If the president was going to shake his hand, he should have asked him about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba."

The politics surrounding relations between the U.S. and Cuba are especially intense in Florida where a large number of Cuban refugees live today.

Not to be outdone, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said, "It gives Raul some propaganda, to continue to prop up his dictatorial, brutal regime."

However, his colleague, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said he has shaken Raul Castro's hand.

And in 2000, President Bill Clinton shook hands with Fidel Castro at the United Nations in New York.

In fact, many U.S. leaders have shaken the hands of despots and dictators over the years. In 1945, President Harry Truman shook the hand of Soviet General Secretary Josef Stalin, as did President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Geopolitical considerations make these incidents significant. Closer to home, the hand-to-hand greeting is almost taken for granted. We Navajos will grab the hand of whoever is in front of us.

My mother taught me to always shake the hands of my political opponents. This was during the Zah-MacDonald wars of the 1980s, the 49ers-versus-MacDonald battle of the late 1980s, and the later politics of the early 1990s.

During these years, we fought our opponents using rhetorical swords that played out in the local news media. My mother's message was to always remember that we are human beings involved in actions that may serve the people. Always have respect, she said, no matter what you've said to each other in the newspaper.

I've tried to follow her calm and common-sense advice over the years, although occasionally it was tough. But controversy and criticism aside, we always shook the hands of our political opponents, whether in Washington, D.C., the states, the major corporations and companies we dealt with, the Hopi Tribe, and those who disagreed with us in Window Rock.

This raises the question: Is there anyone on the Navajo Nation you would not shake hands with? How about President Ben Shelly or Speaker Johnny Naize or any member of the Navajo Nation Council?

I prefer to use my mother's teachings that we should respect each other and never lose sight of our goal of serving the people and our communities.

So, as Obama made his way to the lectern to give his speech at the memorial for Mandela, he paused to shake hands with the line of leaders, among them Raul Castro. If he had snubbed Castro, that might have been bigger news than their handshake.

But it was appropriate that, despite the criticism and storm of controversy, the two leaders shook hands at a ceremony remembering a champion of freedom.

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