US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at the memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela in Soweto, South Africa
By Caribbean News Now contributor
WASHINGTON, USA -- An historic handshake between US President Barack Obama and Cuba's Raul Castro at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa on Tuesday has caused a stir in the US, Cuba and around the world.
Obama shook Castro's hand as he made his way down a line of dignitaries, including South African President Jacob Zuma and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, on his way to deliver an address honouring the late South African leader.
The moment was greeted in Cuba with surprise and hope for improved relations and is seen by many Cubans as a signal of reconciliation, after more than 50 years of bitter ideological and political differences between the two countries.
The handshake was not planned, and the two did no more than exchange greetings, a White House aide said.
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, took place out of sight of cameras.
Meanwhile, Cuban-American lawmakers in Washington voiced disappointment on Tuesday over the handshake, calling it a "propaganda coup" for the Cuban government.
"It is nauseating... He shook the hand of a murderer, a thug, and those are bloody hands," said Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who fled Cuba with her family when she was a child.
Speaking later at a hearing with Secretary of State John Kerry, she said, "Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake, but when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant."
An administration official said, "This wasn't a pre-planned encounter," adding, "Above all else, today is about honouring Nelson Mandela, and that was the president's singular focus at the memorial service."
Ros-Lehtinen’s office did not respond to a request for an explanation as to why the congresswoman feels so strongly about a simple handshake yet apparently failed, as a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, to give any attention in over a year to the reported suborning of US officials by foreign individuals associated or aligned with groups and blocs perceived to be hostile to US national security interests, and sympathetic to the very regime in Cuba about which she is so outspoken.