US, Cuban leaders exchange pleasantries

16:40, Dec 10 2013
Nelson Mandela's death
STREET SYMPATHY: Mourners react with song and dance on the street in Soweto where Mandela once lived.
Nelson Mandela's death
CANDLE LIGHT: South Africans have been laying tributes to Mandela since his death this month.
Desmond Tutu
MEMORIAL SERVICE: Former Archbishop of Cape Town and veteran anti-apartheid campaigner Desmond Tutu held a mass at Cape Town's Anglican St George's Cathedral for Mandela.
Nelson Mandela's death
BIG BANNER: In France, a huge banner featuring Mandela's face was hung from the foreign affairs ministry.
Nelson Mandela's death
PARLIAMENT SQUARE: In London, in the shadow of Big Ben, floral tributes were laid at the base of Mandela's statue.
Nelson Mandela's death
YOUNG TRIBUTES: A prayer ceremony was held at a school in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad.
Nelson Mandela memorial
CELEBRATION OF A LIFE: People start singing as they arrive for a mass memorial for Nelson Mandela at First National Bank Stadium in Johannesburg.
Nelson Mandela memorial
CELEBRATION OF A LIFE: The 95,000-seat stadium will host the main ceremony.
Nelson Mandela memorial
CELEBRATION OF A LIFE: People start singing as they arrive for a mass memorial for Nelson Mandela at First National Bank Stadium in Johannesburg.
Nelson Mandela memorial
CELEBRATION OF A LIFE: US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are escorted off the tarmac as they arrive in South Africa to attend a memorial service for Nelson Mandela.
Nelson Mandela memorial service
LIFE CELEBRATION: A woman in the crowd takes a moment for contemplation.
Nelson Mandela memorial service
LIFE CELEBRATION: Crowds have filled a stadium in Johannesburg to farewell former South African leader Nelson Mandela, who died last week at the age of 95.
Nelson Mandela memorial service
LIFE CELEBRATION: British Prime Minister David Cameron was among world leaders to attend.
Nelson Mandela memorial service
LIFE CELEBRATION: Young and old came to pay their respects.
Nelson Mandela memorial service
LIFE CELEBRATION: Unusual adornments were worn by some.
Nelson Mandela's death
FORMER LEADER: Ex-South African president FW de Klerk takes his seat in the stadium.
Nelson Mandela's death
EX-WIFE: Winnie Mandela, ex-wife of Mandela, is seen in this still image from the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation.
Nelson Mandela's death
MEMORIAL PRESENCE: Graca Machel, Mandela's widow, was present at the stadium.
Nelson Mandela's death
CURRENT LEADER: South African President Jacob Zuma waves as he arrives at the stadium. He was later booed by the crowd.
Nelson Mandela
A mourner pumps his fist during the Nelson Mandela memorial in Soweto.
Nelson Mandela
Mourners cover up with umbrellas as US President Barack Obama delivers his eulogy.
Jacob Zuma
Under-fire South African President Jacob Zuma was booed and jeered before his speech.
Barack Obama
An image of Nelson Mandela shows on the big screen as US President Barack Obama speaks.
Mourners at Mandela memorial
Attendees sing and dance at Nelson Mandela's memorial.
Barack Obama
US President Barack Obama delivers his eulogy.
Barack Obama
US President Barack Obama greets Nelson Mandela's widow Graca Machel.
Nelson Mandela memorial
The crowds gather at Soccer City stadium for Nelson Mandela's memorial.
Nelson Mandela memorial
J. Nico Scholten, from Amsterdam, holds up a photo of his meeting with Nelson Mandela.
Nelson Mandela memorial
A child draped in a South African flag at Soccer City stadium for Nelson Mandela's memorial.
Mourners at Mandela memorial
Elizabeth Alexander was on holiday from Sydney when Mandela died. She walked in the rain to get to the stadium.
Mourners at Mandela memorial
Aucklander Ray Vantrhaar was back home in South Africa for the funeral of his father.
Nelson Mandela's coffin in state
GLASS COFFIN: Nelson Mandela is lying in state for mourners to pay respects.
Nelson Mandela's death
SOMBRE ARRIVAL: Personnel carry the coffin on Nelson Mandela into Union Buildings, Pretoria.
Nelson Mandela memorial
South Africans wait in line to pay respects to Nelson Mandela's body in Pretoria.
Nelson Mandela memorial
South Africans wait in line to pay respects to Nelson Mandela's body in Pretoria.
Nelson Mandela memorial
South Africans wait in line to pay respects to Nelson Mandela's body in Pretoria.
Nelson Mandela memorial
Thousands of South Africans wait in line to pay respects to Nelson Mandela's body in Pretoria.
Nelson Mandela memorial
Thousands of South Africans wait in line to pay respects to Nelson Mandela's body in Pretoria.
FW de Klerk
Former South African president FW de Klerk walks away with wife Elita after paying respects to Nelson Mandela.
Nelson Mandela
A flame burns near a portrait of Nelson Mandela at the Nelson Mandela Museum in Qunu.

President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro today at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela, a simple gesture that stoked talk of a possible rapprochement between the leaders of two Cold War foes.

The brief encounter between the US and Cuban president came during a ceremony that celebrated the former South African president's legacy of reconciliation. Obama was greeting a line of world leaders attending the memorial in Johannesburg before delivering his own eulogy in which he urged a new generation to embrace Mandela's life work as their own.

More than half a century after the US cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba, such exchanges between American and Cuban leaders are exceedingly rare. US officials often have gone to great lengths to avoid having presidents meet Cuban leaders, even in passing.

In fact, when former Cuban President Fidel Castro, who led the nation for nearly half a century, shook hands with former President Bill Clinton at a UN Millennium Summit luncheon in 2000, he said Clinton had been the first US president to do so.

Despite today's handshake, Obama still offered an implicit criticism of governments like Cuba's when moments later, he said that too many people embrace Mandela's legacy of racial reconciliation but passionately resist economic and other reforms.

"There are too many who claim solidarity with Madiba's struggle for freedom but do not tolerate dissent from their own people," Obama said, referring to Mandela by his clan name.

Making his way to the podium for his speech, Obama also greeted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff with a kiss on the cheek. Rousseff and Obama have clashed over reports the National Security Agency monitored her communications, leading the Brazilian leader to shelve a state trip to the US earlier this year in a show of anger.

The US and Cuba have recently taken small steps toward political reconciliation, raising hopes that Washington and Havana could be on the verge of a breakthrough. But skeptics caution the two countries have shown subtle signs of thaw in the past, only to fall back into old recriminations.

In 2009, Obama made waves when he shook hands with the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, a strident critic of the United States, at the Summit of the Americas.

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Barack Obama
RARE MEETING: US President Barack Obama greets Cuban leader Raul Castro during the memorial for Nelson Mandela.

AP