President Barack Obama's handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela's memorial service was simply a nicety, the White House says, not a sign that the U.S. is considering a further thawing of relations with Cuba.
"When he went to the podium, he shook hands with everybody," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, said of Obama, whose interaction with Castro has enraged Cuban Americans. "He didn't do more than exchange greetings with those leaders..it wasn't a substantive discussion. The president's focus was on honoring the legacy of Nelson Mandela."
Rhodes said Obama shook hands with a number of foreign leaders and none of the exchanges were planned ahead of time: "What people need to remember is that today was about Nelson Mandela," he said. "That's where the president's focus was, not on any political or policy matter."
The gesture, nevertheless, has inflamed Cuban Americans in Miami who accuse the Cuban regime of stifling dissent on the island.
"International Human Rights Day, December 10th," tweeted former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican. "Dissidents in #Cuba being brutalized today, but Pres. Obama warmly greets Raul Castro."
Rhodes acknowledged that the administration has taken a different stance toward Cuba than its predecessor, including relaxing a travel ban, but he said it continues to have "the same grave concerns about the human rights situation in Cuba" and the government's continued detention of American Alan Gross -- whom he said should be immediately released.
"People continue to explore the types of openings that we've undertaken and the president has indicated a willingness to pursue different paths," Rhodes said. "But at the same time, we would very much focus our policy on securing greater human rights and dignity and opportunity for the people of Cuba. That would certainly be in line with the kind of values the president spoke about today."