Cuba Says Obama-Castro Handshake a Hopeful Gesture

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U.S. President Barack Obama's surprise handshake Tuesday with Cuban President Raul Castro at a memorial for the late Nelson Mandela in South Africa was saluted in Havana as a hopeful sign.

The government website ran a photograph of the moment with the caption: "Obama greets Raul: may this image be the beginning of the end of the U.S. aggressions against Cuba."

Obama offered the handshake before taking the stage to give his speech at the ceremony, in a new sign of his willingness to reach out to U.S. enemies, a U.S. official told Agence France Presse.

Later on Tuesday, the White House said the handshake was not "planned."

"Nothing was planned" beyond Obama's speech in honor of Mandela, deputy U.S. national security advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters traveling home with Obama on Air Force One.

"When he went to the podium, he shook hands with everyone on his way to speak. Really, he didn't do more than exchange greetings with those leaders," Rhodes said.

"The president's focus was on honoring the legacy of Nelson Mandela."

The United States maintains a five-decade-old embargo against the communist island nation, which Havana says has cost the economy $1.1 trillion.

It was only the second time in the past 60 years that leaders of the two Cold War antagonists have pressed the flesh.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Bill Clinton exchanged greetings in 2000 during the Millennium summit in New York.

"I couldn't run out to avoid greeting him," the elder of the Castro brothers said at the time, adding that the encounter lasted 20 seconds. "It would have been extravagant and rude to do anything else."

The handshake was seen by millions around the world watching the memorial being broadcast live and comes as Obama tries to make good on his vow to reach out even to the most implacable of U.S. foes.

In September, the U.S. leader spoke by telephone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in the first such gesture since the 1979 revolution in the Islamic republic.

Cold War foes Cuba and the United States have had only limited ties for half a century, most of it under the iron fist rule of Raul's brother Fidel Castro.

Washington has maintained a trade embargo against Cuba for half a century, and the fate of the communist state is a bitter issue in U.S. domestic politics.

Vehemently anti-Castro Cuban-Americans make up a sizable portion of voters and political donors in Florida, a battleground state where U.S. presidential elections can be won or lost.

As a presidential candidate Obama was pilloried as naive and dangerous by rivals from both parties for suggesting that as president he would be willing to talk to foes without preconditions.

Obama's ability to track down and kill Osama bin Laden and a series of drone strikes has largely insulated him from allegations of weakness in foreign and security policy, but the president was careful to pointedly call out oppressive leaders in his speech Tuesday, with Castro just feet away.

"There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba's struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people," he said, stabbing his finger in the air.

Since Obama took office tensions have eased, with both countries reaching a series of agreements seen as confidence building measures including cooperation on air and maritime rescue, migratory issues.

In 2011 Obama eased restrictions on visas, remittances and travel.

The move was designed to expand religious and educational travel, allow any airport to offer charter flights to the country and restore cultural initiatives suspended by the previous Bush administration.

Talks are underway to resume a direct postal service between the two countries.

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