Nelson Mandela: Brief but important handshake between Obama, Castro at Mandela service

(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.

The greeting quickly sparked a strong debate on Twitter between those who praised and disagreed with the handshake, given that the United States does not share diplomatic relations with Cuba.

But a senior administration official said it was not "pre-planned encounter."

"Above all else, today is about honoring Nelson Mandela, and that was the President's singular focus at the memorial service," the official continued. "We appreciate that people from all over the world are participating in this ceremony.

PHOTOS: Nelson Mandela memorial service (http://bit.ly/1gWaOqi)

As the President said, we urge leaders to honor Mandela's struggle for freedom by upholding the basic human rights of their people."

Nonetheless, it was a moment of high symbolism. The U.S. and Cuba have not had diplomatic relations since the Cuban Revolution more than 50 years ago. 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.

The handshake came before Obama's speech, in which he made remarks about reconciliation.

"It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well -- (applause) -- 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," Obama said.

The President also made sure to include a comment about freedom, which seemed directly aimed at dictatorial regimes.

"There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba's struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people," he said. "And there are too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard."

CNN Chief National Correspondent John King, however, recalls a different story at the inauguration of Mandela in 1994, when Vice President Al Gore went out of his way--ducking behind aides, through doors--to avoid a greeting with Fidel Castro.

"But an inauguration is very different from a memorial service," King added on CNN's "New Day." "Raul Castro was right there. I would say the President of the United States really didn't have much of a choice."

Had he lingered a long time, King said, Obama might have ignited a bigger backlash.

"But make no doubt about it...somebody will decide that was a horrible thing," King continued. "I think the President was showing respect for the moment."

CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta contributed to this report.


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