JOHANNESBURG – Amid cheers and songs for the prisoner who became peacemaker, President Barack Obama energized tens of thousands of spectators and nearly 100 visiting heads of state Tuesday with a plea for the world to emulate Nelson Mandela, “the last great liberator of the 20th century.”
Obama’s eulogy was the rhetorical highlight of a memorial service in which South Africans celebrated Mandela’s life with singing and dancing, often during dignitaries’ speeches.
While Obama’s eulogy inspired the crowd, it was a handshake that made the biggest wave.
Exchanging pleasantries amid a gaggle of world leaders gathered at Mandela’s memorial, Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shook hands – leaders of nations that have been mired in Cold War antagonism for more than five decades.
“On the one hand, you shouldn’t make too much of this. Relations between Cuba and the United States are not changing tomorrow because they shook hands,” said Geoff Thale, a Cuba analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a U.S.-based think tank. But he contrasted the moment to a 2002 development summit where then-Mexican President Vicente Fox asked Fidel Castro to leave to avoid having him in the same room as President George W. Bush.
Some didn’t cast it off as insignificant.
“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,” said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American congresswoman from Florida who until January 2013 was chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Obama and Castro’s encounter was the first of its kind between U.S. and Cuban presidents since Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro shook hands at the U.N. in 2000.
Obama adviser Ben Rhodes said the handshakes were not planned in advance and didn’t involve any substantive discussion.
“The president didn’t see this as a venue to do business,” he told reporters.
Lashing rain lent a freewheeling aspect to the memorial, with people taking shelter in the stadium’s wide hallways, where they sang anti-apartheid anthems from the 1970s and ’80s. Foul weather kept many away, and the 95,000-capacity stadium was only two-thirds full.
Obama implored people to embrace Mandela’s universal message of peace and justice, comparing the South African leader to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. Mandela spent 27 years in prison under a racist regime, and promoted forgiveness and reconciliation when he was freed.
“We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again,” Obama said. “But let me say to the young people of Africa, and young people around the world – you can make his life’s work your own.”
He hailed Mandela, who died Thursday at 95, as the unlikely leader of a movement that gave “potent voice to the claims of the oppressed and the moral necessity of racial justice.”
After Tuesday’s memorial, Mandela’s body will lie in state for three days at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, before burial Sunday in his rural childhood village of Qunu in Eastern Cape Province.