President Barack Obama probably didn't plan on it becoming the newsreel highlight of the Nelson Mandela funeral trip, but his handshake with Cuban leader Raul Castro on Tuesday is turning into either a controversial political move or a symbol of Mandela's legacy, at least according to reactions on Twitter.
A video clip from the memorial service for the former South African president shows Obama and Castro exchanging the handshake and remarks at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg.
The United States and Cold War foe Cuba don't have diplomatic relations and the communist country continues to imprison American Alan Gross, who was arrested in 2009 for reportedly helping a small village of Jews access the Internet.
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The symbolic handshake between Obama and Castro immediately set off a firestorm of reactions online, with some criticizing the U.S. president for even acknowledging the Cuban dictator.
Many Twitter users also commented on Obama's posture during the handshake, accusing the president of bowing to Castro. But The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg quickly nixed that rumor.
Others saw the handshake as a nod to what Mandela would have wanted.
"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," CNN's Jill Dougherty wrote
. "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."
After the handshake, Obama addressed Mandela's strong belief in reconciliation in his speech.
"It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well, to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion and generosity and truth," he said.
In 2009, Obama was criticized for "hobnobbing" with the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez.
Photographs snapped during the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago showed a smiling Obama shaking hands with Chavez and chatting.
"I think it's very unfortunate. I don't think President Obama really understands, perhaps out of lack of experience in international affairs, the importance of symbolism," former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Otto Reich said at the time.
In what was called a "shocking display of fealty to a foreign potentate," Obama bowed to the King of Saudi Arabia at a 2009 Group of 20 summit meeting in London
"The bow was an extraordinary protocol violation," The Washington Times observed in an editorial. "Such an act is a traditional obeisance befitting a king's subjects, not his peer. There is no precedent for U.S. presidents bowing to Saudi or any other royals."
Obama offered King Abdullah a deep and prolonged bow from the waist when he met him at the summit.
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