For just seconds, the shaking of hands between two presidents along with an exchange of pleasantries amidst a group of world leaders brought together in pay homage to Nelson Mandela, opened eyes across the Americas.
It would normally not have been anything noteworthy, except the men who shock hands at Mandela’s memorial service were U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro. Their two nations have taken part in a Cold War for over five decades.
The cordial gesture will likely do little to wash away the bad blood between the two nations that dates back as far as the Eisenhower administration. However, over the past year both countries have taken steps to improve the relationship the handshake could be a sign of more rapprochement.
However, not everyone delighted in the scene of Obama and Castro exchanging pleasantries. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen a congresswoman from Florida who is Cuban American said that at times handshakes are just handshakes, but when the free world’s highest leader shakes the bloody hand of Raul Castro a ruthless dictator, it is nothing more than a tyrant’s propaganda coup.
Obama’s encounter with Castro was just the first between sitting president from the U.S. and Cuba since 2000, when then-President Bill Clinton shook hands with Cuba’s Fidel Castro at the United Nations.
The handshake came as Obama was greeting world leaders while walking toward the podium to give his memorial speech.
Obama also gave a cheek kiss to Dilma Rousseff the President of Brazil. The two had clashed over National Security Agency surveillance that is alleged to have monitored her and some of her top cabinet members. She shelved an official state trip earlier this year to the U.S. because of the alleged spying.
Obama also briefly greeted Hamid Karzai the President of Afghanistan in another potentially awkward exchange. Karzai refused to sign an agreement over security with the U.S. that has irritated the White House administration.
An Obama adviser said none of the handshakes had been planned prior by the president. The adviser added that President Obama did not look at this venue for business.
The U.S. and Cuba still do not have any diplomatic relations and the U.S. continues to maintain its economic embargo of 51 years against Cuba.