Presidents shaking Hands with Dictators

By Juan Cole

President Barack Obama’s casual hand shake with Cuban president Raul Castro at the memorial for Nelson Mandela has, predictably, set off a wave of outrage among right wing politicians and pundits who are anyway perpetually outraged by anything Obama does or indeed, just by his being president.

Sen. John McCain, who frankly seems to go in and out of lucidity, compared Raul Castro to Hitler and Obama to Neville Chamberlain.

But presidents have all along shaken hands with dictators. Until relatively recently, there were few democracies in the world, so ipso facto heads of state were dictators.

Even today, the Economist Intelligence unit rates countries in the world from democratic (dark green) to flawed democracies (light green), to hybrid regimes (yellow, brown), to authoritarian regimes (i.e. dictatorships) (red, dark red, purple):

So President Obama at any meeting of world leaders almost certainly is going to be shaking hands with dictators. The people screaming about this have often themselves shaken hands with or supported to the hilt an assortment of seedy characters and tyrants.

As for the Fox pundit who claimed that Obama’s handshake with Raul Castro desecrated Mandela’s memory, he leads a sheltered life:

It is only if the dictators don’t do as Washington orders that they typically get demonized. And somehow Republican presidents who have hung out with Communist dictators get a pass from the Right:

So here are presidents, other high officials, and dictators:



George W. Bush, Hosni Mubarak

and W. with a Communist dictator:

11 Responses

  1. Huh, I guess if you have a multiple-candidate elected parliament and multiple-candidate elected executive branch, according to the map you’re using, Juan, you can still live in the severest of dictatorships. Who knew, right?

  2. I know the man runs a secret police force that extensively spies on his own civilians and exercises the right to imprison or murder these same civilians without trial but isn’t calling the man shaking the hand of President Castro a dictator a little harsh?

  3. Sidetracking slightly, I find the photograph of Pres. Bush with Pres Mubarak, and the assumption that a president is shaking hands with a dictator quite presumptuous on your part. President Bush would fall under many regimes and categories as the worse of the two. In case you have forgotten, remember Iraq??

  4. The Cuban electoral system is a pyramid, modelled on the original system of the French revolution, which itself was copied from medieval religious orders: local communities elect delegates who then elect the next level, etc. Not perhaps a perfect model…but money can’t buy Cuban elections. It should be noted that Fidel Castro’s birth in Cuba is directly due to US pressure to “whiten” Cuba by encouraging immigration from Spain.

  5. Whose history shall we put the handshake in perspective with?

    So “our guy” shakes hands with “their guy.” And nobody notes that thanks to the way the tapeworms have entwined in the guts of the world, there really is not a whole lot of difference between what “our guy” “stands for,” and what “their guy ” “stands for.” Either way, the kleptocrats suck ever more of the nutrition and vitality out of the people and the planet, and keep on crapping out more cysts and segments as they grow and multiply. link to

    “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which. ”

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  6. “Sen. John McCain, who frankly seems to go in and out of lucidity”

    So true. There is sometime seriously wrong with McCain. He never met a war he didn’t like. The day he leaves the US Senate will be a great day for world peace. But we will probably leave the US Senate the same way Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd left.

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