Is Obama-Castro Handshake A Step Toward U.S.- Cuba Thaw?

President Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela Tuesday. It is believed to be the first handshake between leaders of the two countries since President Clinton greeted Raul's brother Fidel Castro at a U.N. meeting in 2000.

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Mandela was celebrated for bringing reconciliation to South Africa. That theme was embodied today in a handshake. At the service, President Obama greeted Cuba's president, Raul Castro. The U.S. and Cuba have not had formal diplomatic relations in more than 50 years and some are seeing this as a small step towards a new relationship. NPR's Ari Shapiro has that story.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: It was the American president's turn to speak about Nelson Mandela. As gospel music wafted over the stadium, Obama jogged up a set of stairs, past bouquets of white lilies. Between and the podium, a row of world leaders sat waiting to speak. Obama greeted each of them as he walked down the line, beginning with Cuba's President Raul Castro. The two men shook hands and spoke briefly to each other.

The four-second exchange between Obama and Castro ricocheted around the world. A White House official downplayed the encounter saying it was unplanned. Indeed, Obama's remarks at the podium seemed to scold rather than embrace Cuba.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs and are still persecuted for what they look like and how they worship and who they love.

SHAPIRO: OK. So the U.S. is not opening an embassy in Havana tomorrow. But still, it's been more than a decade since an American president shook hands with Cuba's leader. The last time was a Clinton meeting with Raul's brother, Fidel Castro at a U.N. gathering in 2000. And while President Obama has not made many public overtures to Cuba, he did lay out this broad principle in his first inaugural address.

OBAMA: We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

SHAPIRO: Many Republicans would rather he did not extend that hand. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Florida spoke at a House hearing today.

REPRESENTATIVE ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: 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.

SHAPIRO: But today, many others are asking whether this handshake could crack the door open to something more than propaganda. Carl Meacham of the Center for Strategic and International Studies worked on a Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years.

CARL MEACHAM: Maybe what this symbolic gesture could signal is maybe the beginning of a more substantive set of policies to accompany this visual gesture.

SHAPIRO: There are lots of policy issues on the table. The most pressing one right now is Alan Gross, an American contractor who's in a Cuban jail accused of espionage. Cuba says it will only release Gross if the U.S. releases some Cubans accused of spying in the U.S. Jorge Duany directs the Cuba Research Institute at Florida International University. He says none of the issues separating the U.S. and Cuba will be resolved by a handshake alone.

JORGE DUANY: But at least, I mean, it's a healthy sign, I think, of, you know what the future may bring to the two countries and to some kind of reestablishment of relations between the two governments.

SHAPIRO: Of course, diplomacy is all relative. While Raul Castro got a handshake, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff got a kiss on both cheeks. That's after she cancelled a state dinner in Washington a few months ago furious over NSA spying revelations. And even the two-cheek kiss does not compare to an exchange Obama had with the leaders of Denmark and Great Britain. The three of them took a selfie. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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