Obama Castro
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, greets Cuban President Raul Castro before giving his speech at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. Reuters

Nelson Mandela’s legacy of relationship-building lived on at the memorial gathering for him Tuesday in Soweto, as the occasion brought together people who do not usually speak to each other. The handshake between U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro, two leaders from mutually hostile nations who had never spoken to each other before, as Obama approached the podium to speak, has generated much buzz in the media -- and not just in the U.S. Many in the Americas had their own opinion on the event.

Whereas the U.S. was cautious in interpreting the gesture, questioning whether it had some meaning or it was “just a handshake,” Cubans were more extreme in their opinions. The streets of Havana greeted the news with hopes of improved relations.

“This is incredibly symbolic and it should not be overlooked. They finally met and greeted each other, this is a consequence of both countries being open to negotiations,” Esteban Morales, a Havana-based professor who's an expert in Cuban-American relations, told Mexican newspaper La Jornada.

“Now, the next step is to start them,” he added.

Yesniel Soto, a government worker in Havana, echoed the feeling. “I never imagined such a thing could happen,” she told Reuters. “I see it as something that has begun to change, a change we are all hoping for.”

Cuban online news agency Cubadebate welcomed the handshake with a hopeful thought: “This could mean the beginning of the end of U.S. aggressions against Cuba.”

The state news agency Granma was equally positive, although less enthusiastic: “This was an evident proof of the respect and admiration Mandela inspired in the world.”

Reaction was more muted within the Cuban expat community in the U.S., where exiles had a hard time believing there was more than protocol involved in the exchange.

“The handshake was unfortunate, but unavoidable and inconsequential,” said Mauricio Claver-Clarone, director of Cuba Democracy Advocates in Washington, D.C.

“Much more important were Obama’s words, which I believe were directed at Castro,” he added.

Claver-Clarone was referring to the U.S. President’s speech, in which he said: “There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom but do not tolerate dissent from their own people,” Obama said.

Mandela was on good terms with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, a fact that has angered the traditionally anti-Castro Cuban expats to Florida. Proof of it was Mandela’s visit to Miami in 1990, when Miami’s then-mayor Xavier Suárez, a Cuban-American, declined to honor him with a proclamation or the keys to the city, prompting a three-year boycott of Miami led by African-American business and community leaders.

This was the second time that presidents from both nations, which have not had relations since 1959, have met in an international event and acknowledged each other. The first time was in 2000, at the Millennium Summit in New York, when Cuban leader Fidel Castro and U.S. President Bill Clinton shook hands.

Before that, the last interaction was in 1959, when U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon was photographed with Fidel Castro shortly after the Cuban Revolution.

There has been much debate about easing the restrictions on Cuba under Obama. Shortly after assuming office, Obama made it easier for Cuban-Americans and Cuban expats to visit their relatives on the island and send remittances. However, the U.S. embargo on Cuba remains largely in place.