Obama shakes Castro’s hand — fitting gesture or disgrace?

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President Obama’s handshake with Cuban President Raúl Castro provoked a chorus of disapproval Tuesday from Republican lawmakers.

The moment came at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa’s largest soccer stadium, as Obama made his way to the podium to deliver remarks.

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The White House said the handshake was an unscripted moment and that Obama was only being polite, while the GOP blowback served as a reminder of the intense passions that can be stirred by U.S.-Cuba relations.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) likened Obama’s gesture to Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Adolph Hitler after the Munich Agreement, though he later insisted the jab was intended partially “in jest.”

“Yeah, it was a joke. But it does give Raúl Castro who is a total dictator, prisons filled with dissidents, a propaganda boost. It does,” McCain said.

In an earlier interview with Public Radio International, McCain asked rhetorically why Obama would “shake hands with someone who is keeping Americans in prison.”

“I mean, what’s the point? Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler,” McCain said.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the son of Cuban immigrants, also slammed the 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.

And Havana-born Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) demanded Secretary of State John Kerry explain the president’s gesture during a House Foreign Affairs panel hearing.

“Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake,” the Florida congresswoman said. “But when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raúl Castro it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant. Raúl Castro uses that hand to sign orders to oppress and jail democracy activists.”

“It’s nauseating and disheartening,” she said in a subsequent statement. 

Foreign policy experts said the sharp rebuke from Republicans was evidence of the powerful grip U.S.-Cuba policy still holds in some areas of the country, more than 50 years after the revolution.

“It is for some an emotional issue,” said Frank Mora, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University. “Particularly for many people here in South Florida who perhaps see or perceive this handshake means an easing of sanctions, a change in U.S. policy when the government in Havana has not made commiserate changes in human rights policy democracy.”

Kerry and other Obama administration officials insisted that the handshake was offered only in the spirit of Mandela, who famously embraced his jailer as part of South Africa’s post-apartheid reconciliation process.

“Today is about honoring Nelson Mandela,” Kerry said, noting that Obama did not choose the guests at the memorial service.

An administration official echoed that sentiment on Tuesday, saying the president’s “singular focus” at the memorial service was “honoring Nelson Mandela.”

The administration 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.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) tweeted that the president’s detractors were “petty” and “off key” in their attacks on Obama.

“Can you imagine what Nelson Mandela would say?” Leahy asked.

Still, the handshake will undoubtedly be viewed within the context of recent White House movement toward easing the economic embargo on Cuba.

At a fundraiser in Miami last month, Obama told donors the U.S. needed to be “creative” and “thoughtful” as it continued to update its policies toward Cuba.

“Keep in mind that when [Fidel] Castro came to power, I was just born,” Obama said. “So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.”

The president has loosened restrictions on travel to the communist nation, allowing Cuban-Americans to make unlimited trips and send unlimited amounts of money to family members.

In 2011, the White House said it would allow students seeking academic credit and churches making religious trips to visit the island. 

Additionally, the administration expanded the number of U.S. airports permitted to offer charter service to the island and allowed so-called “purposeful travel” via a licensing process intended to weed out pleasure trips.

Republicans and even some Cuban-American Democrats have denounced the administration’s moves, and the easing has been complicated by the imprisonment of Alan Gross.

A U.S. Agency for International Development worker in the country, Gross 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.

Still, at least one top Democrat saw reason to embrace the embrace.

“I think it was something significant,” former president Jimmy Carter, who attended the memorial service, told CNN. “I hope that will be an omen for the future.”

Jeremy Herb and Julian Pecquet contributed.