US President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuban leader Raul Castro on the sidelines of a memorial service for South African anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg on Tuesday that brought together nearly 100 world leaders.
US President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuban leader Raul Castro on Tuesday on the sidelines of a memorial service for South African anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela that brought together nearly 100 world leaders.
The handshake between the leaders of the two Cold War-era enemies came as Obama greeted a line of heads of state attending the Johannesburg service as he made his way to the podium to deliver a speech.
Castro's smile as he shook Obama's hand was seen by many Cubans as a signal of reconciliation after more than half a century of bitter ideological and political differences between the two countries, whose shores are separated by only 90 miles.
"I never imagined such a thing could happen," Yesniel Soto, a 25-year-old government worker, told Reuters. "I see it as something that has begun to change, a change we are all hoping for."
'Nothing to get too excited about just yet'
The two presidents' civil exchange was the latest sign of a change in the usually hostile relations between the two governments.
‘Like shaking hands with Hitler’
US Republicans were outraged by the gesture, with one senior lawmaker likening the act to appeasement of the Nazis.
"It gives Raul (Castro) some propaganda, to continue to prop up his dictatorial, brutal regime, that's all," said Senator John McCain, who lost to Obama in a 2008 bid for the White House.
McCain said it was a mistake to "shake hands with somebody who is keeping Americans in prison”.
"What's the point?" McCain asked, when questioned by AFP on whether Obama should have made the gesture. "Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler," he added, referring to the former UK premier's agreement to cede parts of Czechoslovakia to the German leader.
Senator Marco Rubio, whose parents left Cuba three years before Fidel Castro took power, offered a more measured reaction.
Obama "should have asked him about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba", Rubio said in an interview with ABC News.
The White House played down the handshake, saying it was merely an exchange of pleasantries and did not signal a policy change.
“Nothing was planned in terms of the president's role other than his remarks," the deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, told reporters travelling with Obama in Johannesburg. "He really didn't do more than exchange greetings with [dignitaries on the podium] on his way to speak, it wasn't a substantive discussion.”
"We continue to have the same grave concerns about both the human rights situation in Cuba and Alan Gross," Rhodes said, referring to a US government contractor who has been in jail in Cuba for committing what a Cuban judge called a crime against the state.
Still, the meeting has resonance because US relations with Cuba have undergone a surprise warming in recent months with several instances of cooperation.
Obama said last month in Miami that it may be time for the US to revise its policies toward Cuba, on which it has had a trade embargo for more than half a century.
Obama questioned whether the policy, which was put in place after former leader Fidel Castro came to power in 1961, remains an effective way of dealing with US differences with the communist-ruled island nation.
The embargo remains one of the key remaining policies from the Cold War era, with the US continuing to ban trade with, and most travel to, Cuba.
Sceptics caution that the two countries have shown signs of a diplomatic thaw in the past, only to fall back into old habits of marginalisation and recrimination.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2013-12-10