After handshake with Obama, Raul Castro praises Nelson Mandela's support of Cuba

12/10/13 AP
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U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuba's President Raul Castro at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela.

photo by BBC Mundo broadcast on YouTube (screen grab).

President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro today at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela, it was a simple gesture that signaled possible thawing between the leaders of two Cold War foes. Despite a steady rain, the mood at a soccer stadium in Johannesburg was one of celebration. Nearly 100 heads of state and government were among the tens of thousands who gathered to remember Mandela, who died last week at the age of 95. Obama received thunderous applause for a speech in which he urged the world to embrace Mandela's universal message of peace and justice.

Obama adviser Ben Rhodes said the handshakes with Castro and other world leaders weren't planned in advance and didn't involve any substantive discussion. Still, more than half a century after the U.S. cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba, such exchanges between American and Cuban leaders are exceedingly rare. In his tribute, which was translated into English, Raul Castro remembered Mandela’s support of Cuba.

"President Jacob Zuma, relatives of Nelson Mandela, distinguished dignitaries, fraternal people of South Africa, let us pay emotional tribute to Nelson Mandela, the ultimate symbol of dignity and unwavering dedication to the revolutionary struggle for freedom and justice, a prophet of unity, peace and reconciliation.

"Alongside his comrades in the struggle, Mandela has led his people in the battle against apartheid to open the way to a new South Africa, a nonracial and a united South Africa in its quest for happiness, equality and the well-being of all of its children, a nation bent on overcoming the consequences of colonialism, slavery and racial segregation. Setting an example of integrity and perseverance, Mandela later headed the efforts to eradicate poverty, reduce inequality and create opportunities for all.

"Mandela has set out an insurmountable example to Latin America and the Caribbean, which are currently moving towards unity and integration for the benefit of their peoples on the basis of respect for diversity and convinced that it is only through dialogue and cooperation that discrepancies can be resolved and a civilized relationship established between those who think differently. As Mandela’s life teaches us, only the concerted efforts of all nations will empower humanity to respond to the enormous challenges that today threaten its very existence.

"Cuba, a country born in the struggle for independence and for the abolition of slavery, and whose children have African blood in their veins, has had the privilege of fighting and building alongside the African nations. We shall never forget Mandela’s moving homage to our common struggle when on the occasion of his visit to our country on July 26, 1991, he said—and I quote—"The Cuban people have a special place in the hearts of the peoples of Africa.

"I remember at this moment his bond of affection with Fidel Castro, a symbol of the fraternal relations between Africans and Cubans. Fidel has said—and I quote—'Nelson Mandela will not go down in history for the 27 consecutive years he spent incarcerated without ever renouncing his ideas. He will go down in history because he was capable of cleaning up his soul from the poison that such an unfair punishment could have planted there, and for his generosity and wisdom, which at the time of victory allowed him to lead with great talent his selfless and heroic people, knowing that the new South Africa could not be built on hatred and vengeance.'"

[transcript via]

The U.S. and Cuba have recently taken small steps toward political reconciliation, raising hopes that Washington and Havana could be on the verge of a breakthrough.

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