President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, shook hands on Tuesday, in a gesture so unprecedented that many observers were tempted to see it as a sign that Nelson Mandela’s memorial had provided the setting for a slight thaw between the leaders of the long-hostile countries.
Obama and Castro were among the speakers eulogizing the South African liberation icon in a rally at the Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg — a reminder that Mandela had accomplished the rare feat of being a friend to both Cuba and the U.S. Obama extended his hand to the Cuban leader as he passed along a line of foreign dignitaries en route to the dais.
Though Obama lingered for just a few seconds before shuffling on to greet Brazil’s president Dilma Roussef, it was time enough time for his body language to suggest a willingness to reach out to a country at loggerheads with the U.S. since the 1959 revolution headed by President Castro’s older brother, Fidel. With Cuba under heavy U.S. sanctions and diplomatic relations all but severed since the ’60s, the last time U.S. and Cuban presidents greeted each other so cordially was in 2000, when then presidents Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro met hands at the U.N. General Assembly.
Photo: SABC Pool/AP