Obama shakes hands with Raúl Castro at Mandela memorial.


It was the briefest of moments, just seconds, two presidents shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries amid a gaggle of world leaders together to honor the late Nelson Mandela.
 The handshake appeared to be the first between American and Cuban presidents since 2000, when Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro greeted each other at a United Nations luncheon in New York, and only the second since 1959, when Castro took power.

 A single, cordial gesture is unlikely to wash away bad blood dating back to the Eisenhower administration. But in a year that has seen both sides take small steps at improving the relationship, the handshake stoked talk of further rapprochement.

 "Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake, but when the leader of the free world shakes a dictator like Raul Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant," said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American congresswoman from Florida who until January 2013 was chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Obama and Castro's encounter was the first of its kind between sitting U.S. and Cuban presidents since Bill Clinton and Fidel shook hands at the U.N. in 2000.
It came as Obama greeted a line of world leaders on his way to the podium for a speech at the memorial.

 "Just as Mandela was released after 27 years in prison, Castro should finally release his political prisoners; he should hold free elections, and once and for all set the Cuban people free."

 Former President Jimmy Carter, who was also in Johannesburg for the Mandela service, shook hands with Fidel Castro on a visit to Cuba in 2002, long after Carter’s presidency. That trip was the first by a sitting or former American president to Cuba since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.

 Obama stirred controversy with a handshake in the past. In 2009, the president shook hands with the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez — who called the United States “the biggest menace to our planet,” among other criticism — at the Summit of the Americas.

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