JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuba’s Raul Castro at a memorial for Nelson Mandela on Tuesday, a rare gesture between the leaders of two ideological opponents that reflected the anti-apartheid hero’s spirit of reconciliation.
As he bounded onto the podium, Obama extended his hand to communist leader Castro, who shook it and smiled back.
The White House played down the move, saying it was a routine pleasantry, not a sign of a policy change.
“Nothing was planned in terms of the president’s role other than his remarks,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters travelling with Obama. “He really didn’t do more than exchange greetings with those leaders on his way to speak, it wasn’t a substantive discussion.”
The only previous known handshake between U.S. and Cuban presidents since the island’s 1959 revolution was at the United Nations in 2000, when Raul’s brother Fidel shook the hand of then-U.S. president Bill Clinton in a chance encounter.