Barack Obama Shakes Raul Castro's Hand
Barack Obama Shakes Raul Castro's Hand Screenshot

At a memorial ceremony held in Johannesburg on Tuesday for late South African leader Nelson Mandela, US President Barack Obama made a surprise move on his way to the podium by greeting Cuban President Raul Castro with a long handshake and smile.

Relations between the US and Cuba have been frozen since after Raul's brother Fidel Castro's communist revolution in 1959. The US has maintained sanctions on the communist regime throughout the decades, particularly given Cuba's poor human rights record.

The handshake can be seen here:

Deputy US National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told AFP afterwards "nothing was planned" beyond Obama's speech, and that the president shook hands with everyone on his way to the podium. However a Cuban government website said the handshake may signal a "beginning of the end of the US aggressions."

The reconciliatory gesture comes despite the ongoing imprisonment of Alan Gross, an American-Jewish contractor for the US who was arrested in Cuba in 2009. On December 3, the fourth anniversary of his incarceration, Gross sent a personal appeal to Obama asking for his intervention, and saying he feels "abandoned."

In 2012, a bipartisan group of Senators wrote to Raul Castro, urging Gross' release and saying his "ongoing detention in your country presents a major obstacle to any further actions to improve our bilateral relations."

Meanwhile the Obama administration in 2011 provoked controversy by relaxing restrictions on Cuba.

Rhodes noted that Obama's administration has "taken a different approach in some important respects in relation to Cuba," although it retains "grave concerns" over Cuba's human rights record and treatment of Gross.

In his speech at the memorial event, Obama said "there are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba's (Mandela's) struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people."

Obama's heavy-handed implementation of his healthcare reforms termed "Obamacare" led to a government shutdown being declared in early October, as Republicans charged that Obama has been refusing to negotiate on Obamacare. Similarly Obama's approval ratings have reached a record low.

The International Business Times reported that last week former US Senator Rick Santorum appeared on "The O'Reilly Factor" show, where he compared Mandela's fight against apartheid with the fight against Obamacare, which he described as a repressive policy. Santorum also agreed with host Bill O'Reilly's comments that Mandela was a communist.

Concerns have been raised in the past over Obama's alleged influence from communism.

In 2009 Van Jones, a senior official in Obama's government, was forced to quit after a scoop revealed he had admitted to being a communist radical. Jones was the leader and founder of the radical communist Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement (STORM), which held a vigil the day after the September 11 attacks expressing solidarity with Arab and Muslim Americans and mourning victims of "American imperialism."

Obama has previously created an uproar for unconventional greetings of world leaders.

The US president was caught on camera in 2009 bowing in greeting to Saudi Arabian King Abdullah at a G20 meeting in London. He later expressed support for the Saudi Initiative in a meeting with the King; the Initiative demands that Israel divide Jerusalem and withdraw from Judea and Samaria.