The White House on Tuesday played down President Barack Obama's handshake with Cuban leader Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandela's memorial, saying it went no further than pleasantries and does 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. "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."
While the United States has relaxed prohibitions on family travel and remittances to Cuba, and taken other steps to allow for greater contacts between the two countries, points of friction remain in the relationship, Rhodes said.
"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 instead of the usual hostile rhetoric.
Obama said last month in Miami that it may be time for the United States to revise its policies toward Cuba, against which it has had a trade embargo for more than half a century. Obama questioned whether the policy that was put in place in 1961 remains an effective way of dealing with US differences with the communist-ruled island nation.
The historic handshake was greeted on the streets of Cuba with surprise and hopes of improved relations.
Reaction was more muted in Miami, where Cuban exiles have had a hard time accepting Mandela's respect for Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Castro's smile as Obama moved to shake his hand on the way to speak at the ceremony was seen by many Cubans as a signal of reconciliation, after more than a half-century of bitter ideological and political differences between the two countries whose shores are separated by only 145km.
"I never imagined such a thing could happen," Yesniel Soto, a 25-year-old government worker, said on her way to work in Havana. "I see it as something that has begun to change, a change we are all hoping for."
The two presidents' civil behaviour towards one another was the latest sign of a change in tone in the usually hostile rhetoric between the two governments.
Officials on both sides have spoken of a new gravity and pragmatism in their dealings with one another. And last month in Miami, Obama recognised for the first time Castro's efforts to reform the Soviet-style economy, adding that US policy, which includes a long-standing trade embargo on Cuba, was outdated.
"Perhaps the American and Cuban presidents grasp, with this handshake, that the work they have to do together is far easier than South Africa's struggle against apartheid," said Julia Sweig, director for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
"It can't hurt, but it's not significant," said Philip Peters, founder of the Cuba Research Centre and author of The Cuban Triangle blog.
"What matters is whether President Obama will conduct relations as he does with all other countries that have different political systems. That requires a decision, not a handshake," Peters added.
Cuban state-run television broadcast Tuesday's pressing of the flesh without commentary, simply as part of the footage of Castro's speech at the tribute in South Africa.
There has been no official comment on the encounter, but official blogger Yohandry Fontana played up the historic event, tweeting a photo of the handshake.
Some Cuban exiles downplayed the greeting, the first between sitting presidents of the two countries since 2000.
"The handshake was unfortunate, but unavoidable and inconsequential," said Mauricio Claver-Clarone, director of Cuba Democracy Advocates in Washington, which promotes human rights.
"Much more important were Obama's words, which I believe were directed at Castro," he added, referring to the US president's speech at the event.
"There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba's struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people," Obama said.
US representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, laid into Secretary of State John Kerry during a committee hearing in Washington on Tuesday, saying "Mr Secretary, sometimes a handshake is just a handshake, but when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raúl Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant."
In a statement, the Cuban-born Ros-Lehtinen called the handshake "nauseating and disheartening", noting that Cuban security officials detained several dissidents on Tuesday during street protests to mark International Human Rights Day.
Mandela was famously snubbed by Cuban exiles in Miami in 1990, when he visited the city after making comments in support of Fidel Castro. Miami's Cuban-American mayor Xavier Suarez declined to honour Mandela with a proclamation or the keys to the city, prompting a three-year boycott of Miami led by African-American business and community leaders.
During Mandela's 27 years in prison, Castro was a leading voice against apartheid when some other world leaders were reluctant to speak out.
A letter signed by five Miami area mayors said Mandela's support for the Cuban leader, as well as former Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat and the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, was "beyond reasonable comprehension".
The only previous known handshake between US and Cuban presidents since the 1959 revolution was in 2000 at the United Nations, when, in a chance encounter, Fidel Castro shook the hand of former president Bill Clinton. That handshake, however, was not recorded for posterity as it took place out of sight of cameras. Richard Nixon, as US vice-president, was photographed with Fidel Castro shortly after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Jimmy Carter also met both Fidel and Raúl Castro after his presidency ended.
In the context of Mandela as a peacemaker, Cuba's Catholic Church took note of the significance of the Obama-Castro handshake. "One hopes that the example of Mandela continues being an inspiration to move further than a formal gesture like this, since Barack Obama and Raúl Castro have said a number of times in their own ways that now is the time to change the style of the relations between Cuba and the United States," church spokesperson Orlando Marquez said. – Reuters