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 befriending both Cuba and the United States. 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 moving on to greet Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, it was enough time for his body language to suggest a willingness to reach out to the leader of a country that has been at loggerheads with the U.S. since the 1959 revolution brought Castro’s older brother, Fidel, to power.
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 shook hands at the U.N. General Assembly.
Both Washington and Havana on Tuesday fervently denied that the handshake was planned, and a White House aide even told Reuters no substantive discussion took place while the hands were gripped. But to some, the poetry of the moment was inescapable: The cordial exchange between long-hostile countries was something Mandela would have wanted.
“I think it was something significant,” former President Jimmy Carter told CNN. “I hope that will be an omen for the future.”
Others tempered their enthusiasm, interpreting the handshake as merely a physical gesture, not a meaningful diplomatic one. “It’s a good gesture, a sign of goodwill, but of course it would have been extremely awkward to not shake his hand,” noted Jorge Duany, director of the Cuba Research Institute at Florida International University.
In the run-up to the memorial service, which drew over 100 current and former heads of state and 100,000 South Africans, analysts predicted that the legacy of a great uniter would provide political cover — if not inspiration — for subtle gestures, such as an Obama-Castro handshake.
When the handshake transpired on Tuesday afternoon, buzz filled the halls of Havana and Washington about the potential for a thawing of relations between the two capitals.
“One can only hope that the handshake is a small step towards higher-level talks about how the U.S. and Cuba can find some reconciliation,” said Marc Hanson, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America. Even if the handshake wasn’t premeditated, he added, “clearly there wasn’t a great deal of personal animosity between them, which is an important factor in moving things forward.”