President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro on International Human Rights Day despite ongoing criticism of the country’s alleged human rights abuses.
Obama pressed the flesh with Castro, the younger brother of former longtime dictator Fidel Castro, at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa. The pro-democracy group Freedom House rated Cuba “not free” in its 2013 report and pointed to a rise in short-term detentions of political dissidents last year surrounding major events.
Cuban-American lawmakers were not pleased with Obama’s gesture on Tuesday, International Human Rights Day.
“It is nauseating,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), who fled Cuba with her family as a child, told Fox News. “He shook the hand of a murderer, a thug, and those are bloody hands.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) also released a stern statement.
“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,” he said.
Arch Puddington, vice president for research at Freedom House, said in an interview that Castro has pursued some forms of economic liberalization and allowed more Cubans to start small businesses and become self-employed.
Additionally, Yoani Sanchez, a popular Cuban blogger who has been beaten and detained for speaking out against the government, was granted permission to leave the country temporarily for the first time earlier this year. She has asked for more cellphones and USB devices to spread her message in Cuba, where Internet access is largely restricted.
However, detentions of dissidents spiked last year during the March visit of the late and former Pope Benedict XVI, the car crash and death of activist Oswaldo Paya in July, and Human Rights Day. Paya’s family alleges that the car carrying him and fellow activist Harold Cepero, who was also killed in the crash, was deliberately forced off the road.
Former U.S. government contractor Alan Gross, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2009 for working to improve Internet access for small Jewish communities in Cuba, also remains behind bars. The Obama administration has attempted to improve relations with Cuba through relaxing travel restrictions and direct negotiations but has failed to secure Gross’ release.
“More serious thinking has to be given to an American diplomatic strategy that will encourage freedom in Cuba, and we should assess what might work and what hasn’t worked in the past,” Puddington said.
“Cuba is still a hellish dictatorship, but at the same time it is a country that is undergoing a measured amount of change.”
A White House official told ABC News that the Obama-Castro handshake was not planned beforehand.
“Above all else, today is about honoring Nelson Mandela, and that was the president’s singular focus at the memorial service,” the official said. “We appreciate that people from all over the world are participating in this ceremony. As the president said, we urge leaders to honor Mandela’s struggle for freedom by upholding the basic human rights of their people.”
Obama also appeared to take a “selfie” or self-portrait on a smartphone with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt on Tuesday, while his wife Michelle watched the ceremony solemnly.