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Obama and Castro shake hands at Mandela memorial service

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In an unprecedented move yesterday at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, South Africa, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shook hands, according to ABC News, December 10, 2013. The handshake, which the White House said was totally unplanned, was seen as being significant because relations between the United States and Cuba have been strained since the height of the Cold War over 50 years ago, starting during the Presidency of John F. Kennedy in 1961.

President Obama was very conciliatory during the memorial service, as a White House spokesman explained:

“Above all else, today is about honoring Nelson Mandela, and that was the President’s singular focus at the memorial service. We appreciate that people from all over the world are participating in this ceremony. As the president said, we urge leaders to honor Mandela’s struggle for freedom by upholding the basic human rights of their people.”

Obama and Castro reportedly talked briefly to one another at the podium after shaking hands. Senator Marco Rubio, who is considered a major GOP contender for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2014, stated that he had "no problem" with President Obama shaking hands with the Cuban President, although he said that he wished that Obama had asked Castro about the basic human freedoms for which Mandela stood that are being denied the people of Cuba:

“I’m more focused on policy than some moment. But if he was going to be there and shake his hand, he should have asked him about those basic freedoms that Mandela is associated with that are systematically denied in Cuba.

My biggest problem is not the handshake.”

Senator Rubio's father fled Cuba which might at least partially explain his hard line position towards Cuba. Such positions are not unheard of among recent immigrants from Cuba and their offspring.

Raul Castro came to power as Cuba's President in 2008 after his elder brother Fidel, who had been in power since 1959, decided to step down. For the most part, Raul has continued his brother's policies and presides over a nation of people who to this day are denied the basic rights and freedoms that Americans take for granted.

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