Obama and Castro in historic handshake
RAW VISION: US President Barack Obama greets his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro, the brother of Fidel Castro, at Nelson Mandela's memorial.PT0M18S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2z4jg 620 349 December 11, 2013
Havana: For sure it's just what Mandela would have wanted, but does it amount to more than that?
The historic handshake between US President Barack Obama and Cuba's Raul Castro at a memorial for Nelson Mandela on Tuesday was greeted on the streets of Cuba with surprise and hopes of improved relations.
US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela's memorial. Photo: Getty
Castro's smile as Obama moved to shake his hand on the way to speak at the ceremony was seen by many Cubans as a signal of reconciliation, after more than a half-century of bitter ideological and political differences between the two countries whose shores are separated by only 90 miles (144 km).
"I never imagined such a thing could happen," said Yesniel Soto, a 25-year-old government worker.
"I see it as something that has begun to change, a change we are all hoping for," Soto said Tuesday morning on her way to work in Havana.
The handshake was not planned and the two did no more than exchange greetings. Photo: AP
The two presidents' civil behaviour towards one another was just the latest sign of a change of tone in the usually hostile rhetoric between the two governments.
Officials on both sides have spoken of a new gravity and pragmatism in their dealings with one another. And last month in Miami, Obama recognised for the first time Castro's efforts to reform the Soviet-Style economy, adding that US policy, which includes long-standing economic sanctions, was outdated.
The handshake was not planned, and the two did no more than exchange greetings, a White House aide said.
US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at the FNB Stadium in Soweto, South Africa, for a memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela. Photo: AP
"Perhaps the American and Cuban presidents grasp, with this handshake, that the work they have to do together is far easier than South Africa's struggle against apartheid," said Julia Sweig, director for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Cuban state-run television broadcast Tuesday's pressing of the flesh without commentary, simply as part of the footage of Castro's speech at the tribute in South Africa.
There has been no official comment on the encounter.
The only previous known handshake between US and Cuban presidents since the 1959 revolution was in 2000 at the United Nations, when, in a chance encounter, Fidel Castro shook the hand of President Bill Clinton. That handshake, however, was not recorded for posterity as it took place out of sight of cameras.
While still US vice president, Richard Nixon was photographed with Fidel Castro shortly after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, almost a full decade before becoming president. Jimmy Carter also met both Fidel and Raul Castro after leaving the White House.
In the context of Nelson Mandela as a peacemaker, Cuba's Catholic Church took note of the significance of the Obama-Castro handshake.
"One hopes that the example of Mandela continues being an inspiration to move further than a formal gesture like this, since Barack Obama and Raul Castro have said a number of times in their own ways that now is the time to change the style of the relations between Cuba and the United States," spokesman Orlando Marquez told Reuters.