By Justin Sink and Jeremy Herb - 12/10/13 01:22 PM EST
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Tuesday compared President Obama's handshake with Cuban leader Raul Castro to Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Adolph Hitler, although the Arizona lawmaker later insisted the jab was intended "in jest."
In an interview with PRI Tuesday morning, McCain said that the handshake "gives Raul some propaganda to continue to prop up his dictatorial regime."
“Why should you shake hands with someone who is keeping Americans in prison? I mean, what's the point? Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler,” he added, referring to the British prime minister’s handshake with the Nazi leader after Great Britain agreed to Germany’s takeover of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.
McCain later said he was joking, although he was serious that Obama's gesture "was terrible."
"Yeah, it was a joke. But it does give Raul Castro who is a total dictator, prisons filled with dissidents, a propaganda boost. It does," McCain said.
McCain noted that Cubans tortured Americans at the Hanoi Hilton, where he was a prisoner of war during Vietnam.
"Hell no, why should I shake hands with a person who is keeping Americans in prison, is oppressing his people, engages in torture," McCain said.
Obama shook hands with Castro at a memorial service in South Africa attended by leaders from around the world. The White House said Obama was merely being polite in greeting the Cuban leader and that it was not a planned moment.
“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.”
Cuba has been in the news in recent weeks over the imprisonment of Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development worker who has been jailed for four years after it was discovered he helped to set up Internet access for a small Jewish community in the communist nation.
Gross and his supporters have criticized the Obama administration for doing too little to secure his release, something the White House last week said it is committed to doing.
“The State Department has kept Mr. Gross’s case at the forefront of discussions with the Cuban government and made clear the importance the United States places on his welfare,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said last week. “They have also engaged a wide range of foreign counterparts and urged them to advocate for Mr. Gross’s release.”
McCain's remarks followed a statement from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) denouncing Obama’s handshake.
“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.
The administration official noted that Obama, in his remarks, 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 American and post-revolutionary Cuban presidents. 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, then vice president, met with the Cuban leader shortly after he took power.
--This report was updated at 4:11 p.m.