By Justin Sink and Amie Parnes - 12/10/13 12:32 PM EST
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) blasted President Obama on Tuesday after the president shook hands with Cuban leader Raul Castro at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela.
“If the president was going to shake his hand, he should have asked him about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba,” Rubio said.
“It remains clear that Cuba is the same totalitarian state today that it has been for decades,” Rubio said. “This totalitarian state continues to have close ties to terrorist organizations.”
He's also criticized the president for loosening restrictions on travel to the island as part of an economic embargo instituted during the Cold War.
The White House defended the handshake earlier, saying it was not a “pre-planned encounter” and was intended in the spirit of the day.
“Above all else, today is about honoring Nelson Mandela, and that was the president's singular focus at the memorial service,” said an administration official. “We appreciate that people from all over the world are participating in this ceremony.”
The official also noted that in his remarks, Obama urged world leaders to honor Mandela's struggle for freedom by upholding basic human rights within their own country.
“There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba's struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people,” Obama said. “And there are too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.”
The incident is believed to be the first contact between the president and Castro. The U.S. and Cuba have not had formal diplomatic relations for more than 50 years, and the U.S. maintains an economic embargo against its Cold War foe.
It was not, however, the first handshake between and American and post-revolutionary Cuban president. In 2000, President Clinton shook hands with Fidel Castro at a meeting of the United Nations. That was the first handshake between Castro and an American president since 1959, when Richard Nixon met with the Cuban leader shortly after he took power.