(CNN) — Arriving on stage at FNB stadium in Johannesburg to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela, President Barack Obama shook hands with dozens of other world leaders, pausing briefly to grasp the hand of Cuban President Raul Castro.
It was a moment of high symbolism. More than 50 years after the Cuban Revolution, the United States and Cuba still do not have diplomatic relations. The President has eased some of the economic embargo and travel restrictions that the administration of President George W. Bush strongly enforced, but relations still are tense. Cuba continues to imprison an American citizen, Alan Gross, who was arrested in 2009 on charges of attempting to destabilize the Cuban government.
Obama knew, of course, that Castro would be on stage. But refusing to shake Castro's hand would not have been in keeping with Mandela's legacy of reconciliation. And it was not the first handshake between American-Cuban leaders. In 2000, at the United Nations, then-President Bill Clinton shook hands with Fidel Castro, the leader of the Cuban Revolution, its first revolutionary president, and Raul's brother.
Obama says he wants to improve relations with Cuba, but disagreements over human rights violations and other issues continue to keep the countries apart.