WASHINGTON — Even in death, Nelson Mandela is bringing together unlikely bedfellows.
For President Obama, the trip to South Africa for the international icon’s memorial service has been a steady series of encounters that can test diplomatic protocol.
The memorial drew dozens of dignitaries and heads of state, including three former U.S. presidents, a bipartisan congressional delegation, and leaders from around the world. Each brought a tangle of tricky relationships and subtext that had to be, at least publicly, set aside to honor a man who championed the art of reconciliation.
Among those world leaders was Cuban President Raul Castro, who was seated in the same VIP section as Obama at the memorial service Tuesday at a soccer stadium in the Johannesburg township of Soweto. Obama shook the Cuban leader’s hand as he greeted his fellow heads of state, generating a photo that immediately ricocheted around the Internet.
It was the first such contact between a U.S. and Cuban president in 13 years, a White House official said. Cuban President Fidel Castro approached President Clinton to shake his hand at a United Nations meeting in 2000.
Like officials did then, the Obama administration did not assign extra meaning to the face-to-face encounter Tuesday, although it comes as Obama is planning to revisit U.S. policies toward Cuba.
The president was solely focused on honoring Mandela, said a White House official, who asked not to be named discussing the president’s private interactions.
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