Dec 10, 2013 11:43 AM by NBC News
SOWETO, South Africa - Briefly laying aside differences hardened over decades, President Barack Obama on Tuesday shook the hand of the president of Cuba at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela.
The handshake appeared to be the first between American and Cuban presidents since 2000, when Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro greeted each other at a United Nations luncheon in New York, and only the second in history.
Tuesday, it was Fidel Castro's brother, Raul, named president of Cuba in 2008, who shook Obama's hand. The moment came just before Obama delivered a eulogy for Mandela in a Johannesburg soccer stadium.
Minutes later, Obama offered implicit criticism of governments like Cuba's when in his speech he said 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.
On his way to the rostrum, Obama also shook the hand of Robert Mugabe, the strongman ruler of Zimbabwe, and hugged Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, who has stridently opposed spying by the National Security Agency and criticized the U.S. government.
Leaders of almost 100 countries turned out for the service for Mandela, who died last week at age 95.
Former President Jimmy Carter, who was also in Johannesburg for the Mandela service, shook hands with Fidel Castro on a visit to Cuba in 2002, long after Carter's presidency. That trip was the first by a sitting or former American president to Cuba since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
Obama stirred controversy with a handshake in the past. In 2009, the president shook hands with the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez - who called the United States "the biggest menace to our planet," among other criticism - at the Summit of the Americas.