Presidents Barack Obama and Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's socialist leader, met Friday and shook hands on the sidelines of a summit of their hemisphere's democracies.
Obama walked across a hotel meeting room to meet Chavez for the first time, said a senior U.S. administration official who witnessed it and spoke on condition of anonymity. The official said Obama initiated the encounter.
Chavez has been a fierce critic of the United States during President George W. Bush's tenure.
"It was very, very short," the official said of Friday's meeting. "The president shook his hand, smiled and then went back to his position in the line."
The encounter comes as Obama softens U.S. policy against Cuba, a Chavez ally.
Photos released by the Venezuelan government show the two smiling and Obama touching Chavez on the shoulder. Other photos show them with clenched hands in the room next to the main summit ballroom while the heads of state and government were waiting in line to enter the opening ceremony.
The Venezuelan presidency also said Obama initiated the handshake and quoted Chavez as telling Obama he hopes for better relations between their nations.
The Venezuelan's office reported Chavez told Obama: "With this same hand I greeted Bush eight years ago. I want to be your friend."
Obama's comments were limited to saying that he wanted to introduce himself to Chavez, the U.S. official said. The Obama official would not comment on what Chavez told the U.S. president.
But when a reporter asked if the Venezuelan account of what happened was accurate, the Obama official said: "I wouldn't dispute that."
As recently as last week, Chavez expressed a desire to "reset" relations with Washington.