At Mandela Funeral, Obama and Castro Shake Hands

At Nelson Mandela's memorial service Tuesday, President Obama was part of the cavalcade of about 90 world leaders gathered to pay tribute to the former South African president. Mandela's message of equality and reconciliation permeated the event — especially when Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro while on his way to give a speech to the roughly 50,000 supporters in Johannesburg's World Cup stadium. Mandela died Thursday at age 95.

The handshake is the first for an American and Cuban president since Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro shook hands in 2000 at a United Nations lunch for world leaders. The handshake between Obama and Raul gave further hope that the two nations might still find a slow path to reconciliation. Since Fidel's brother assumed powers in 2008, the Obama administration has eased restrictions on travel and investments. Cuba has freed many political prisoners — although some, like former U.S. subcontractor Alan Gross, who says he has been imprisoned for 4 years — remain stuck in Cuba.

Despite a torrential rainstorm ("a sign, according to Zulu culture, of an esteemed elder passing on and being welcomed into the afterlife by his ancestors"), people in the stands cheered for Obama as he gave his speech. The president said that Mandela "makes me want to be a better man." Even though Mandela was not perfect by any means, Obama said that his power lay in his ability to take risks and demand concrete action. Obama doubted that the world will ever see another person quite like Mandela. In closing, he called upon others to uphold justice and equality in their own lives.

"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 changed laws, but he also changed hearts."

Quite appropriately, Mandela's memorial falls on the commemoration of Human Rights Day. Other leaders attending the ceremony include former presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, Bono, and actress Charlize Theron. Mandela's body will stay in Pretoria's Union Buildings for three days until he is buried Sunday in his childhood village of Qunu.

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