President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro shook hands on Tuesday as the U.S. president walked toward the podium to begin his tribute speech to the late South African leader Nelson Mandela.
The encounter took place at a memorial service for Mandela in Johannesburg, South Africa. Obama and Castro were among a group of world leaders who addressed the audience.
It was only the second known handshake between U.S. and Cuban heads of state in the last six decades. The last time it happened was in 2000, when Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro ran into each other at the United Nations. But it's far from a sign that U.S.-Cuban relations are close to being repaired.
The United States and Cuba broke off formal diplomatic relations in 1961 over conflicts stemming from the island’s Communist revolution. And for over 51 years, the U.S. has imposed a strict trade embargo against Cuba.
President Obama has implemented looser restrictions on travel and monetary remittances to the Caribbean nation than past administrations. But Obama has given no indication that he would end the embargo or normalize relations with Cuba.
Obama's speech may have said more about his thoughts on Communist Cuba than his handshake. Minutes after he greeted the Cuban leader, Obama took a shot at oppressive regimes like Castro's.
"Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs; and are still persecuted for persecuted for what they look like, and how they worship and who they love," the president said.
"There are too many people who happily embrace Madiba's legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality," Obama added. "There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba's struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people."
Handshakes between U.S. leaders and enemies are far from uncommon. But Cuban-American GOP lawmakers who staunchly oppose the Castro regime nonetheless took issue with Obama and Castro's handshake.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.) called it "nauseating."
"Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake, but when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant," she said in an interview with Fox News.
Castro’s invitation to speak likely stemmed from Mandela’s friendship with his brother, Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.
Mandela was imprisoned for nearly three decades for trying to overthrow South Africa’s apartheid government. Fidel Castro opposed South Africa’s white-minority rule, while the U.S. propped it up amid its fight against Communism worldwide.
Mandela called Castro’s revolution a “source of inspiration for all freedom-loving people” in 1991. But Mandela, known as a hero for human rights, has received criticism for turning a blind eye to some of the Castro regime’s crimes against its own people.
Obama and Castro were not the only leaders who addressed the crowd. South African President Jacob Zuma, United Nations Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will address the crowd, among others.
Obama and Rousseff also shook hands as the U.S. president walked toward the podium. Rousseff canceled a state visit to Washington, D.C. this October over reports the U.S. government had spied on her personal communications.
The White House said Monday it does not expect any bilateral meetings between President Obama and other world leaders.
Dozens more leaders were in attendance, including former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. The service was held in the town of Soweto at FNB Stadium, which holds over 94,000 people.
ABC News' Molly Hunter contributed to this report.
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.