White House blasts GOP for criticism of Castro handshake

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The White House blasted Republicans on Wednesday for criticizing President Obama’s decision to shake hands with Cuban leader Raul Castro.

“There used to be a pretty important principle, that originated in the Republican Party, I believe, that partisan politics should stop at the water’s edge,” said White House deputy press secretary Joshua Earnest. “It’s unfortunate that we did see a number of Republicans yesterday who criticized the president for a handshake.”


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Mr. Obama shook hands with Mr. Castro on stage in South Africa at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela on Tuesday. The U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with the communist regime and only one U.S. president had exchanged personal greetings with Mr. Castro or his brother Fidel since they took power in a Communist revolution in 1959.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, compared it with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain having shook hands with Adolf Hitler at the Munich conference before World War II.

“It gives Raul some propaganda to continue to prop up his dictatorial brutal regime, that’s all,” Mr. McCain said.

Mr. Obama’s spokesman bristled at any comparison involving the Nazi dictator.

“That is a dangerous and usually unwise thing to do in public,” Mr. Earnest said.

The White House aide said the president was simply treating Mr. Castro with the same courtesy he showed to other world leaders who attended the service.

“The president shook hands with everybody who’s on the stage,” Mr. Earnest said. “They didn’t have a robust, substantive conversation about policies, but rather exchanged some pleasantries as the president was making his way to the podium.”

Mr. McCain said that the president should not have extended his hand to the Cuban leader because, among other reasons, Cuba has been holding American Alan Gross in prison for more than four years on charges of espionage.

“Why should you shake hands with somebody who’s keeping Americans in prison? I mean, what’s the point?” said Mr. McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Mr. Earnest said the U.S. has demanded many times that Cuba release Mr. Gross, but the president didn’t have the opportunity to raise that subject or other human-rights concerns with Mr. Castro at the ceremony.

“There was not an opportunity for the president to chronicle his many concerns about human rights abuses on the island of Cuba,” he said. “The president did not have the opportunity to say to him directly something that he’s said many times, which is that Alan Gross should be released.”

Asked by a reporter whether Mr. Obama would have shaken hands with Syrian leader Bashar Assad or North Korea’s Kim Jong-un if they had been on stage, Mr. Earnest said it was a “difficult hypothetical” that he couldn’t answer.

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