A prominent Cuban-American lawmaker criticized President Obama’s decision to shake hands with Cuban leader Raúl Castro during a memorial service for South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.
Florida Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen (R) fled Cuba with her family as a child and her father was a militant opponent of Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution. She called the handshake “especially nauseating” because it takes attention away from the plight of Cuban dissidents.
"That's why it's upsetting,” she told Fusion’s Jorge Ramos. “I understand that sometimes a handshake is just a handshake. But I hope that there's no policy change attached to it."
Obama greeted Castro before walking to the podium to speak in honor of Mandela. Both men addressed the crowd at the late leader’s memorial service in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The U.S. president’s speech, however, may have said more about his thoughts on the Castro regime than his handshake.
"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.
White House spokesman Ben Rhodes told reporters on Tuesday that "nothing was planned" for Obama at the service other than his speech.
"He was focused above all on paying tribute to Nelson Mandela," Rhodes said. "When he went to the podium, he shook hands with everybody on his way to speak. He really didn't do more than exchange greetings with those leaders on his way to speak."
Ros-Lehtinen said that she spoke with Secretary of State John Kerry following the speech, who reassured her there are no policy changes afoot.
Regardless, she said the gesture would be exploited by the regime.
"Raul Castro will use that photo as a propaganda coup,” she said. “There won't be a single Cuban on the island who won't see the photo.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), an Obama ally, slammed critics of the president’s handshake as “petty.”
“How petty and off-key to attack a president for a handshake, and in such a setting. Can imagine what Nelson #Mandela would say,” he tweeted.
The Cuban-American exile community in South Florida, which Ros-Lehtinen represents, despises the Castros and strongly supports the U.S. embargo on Cuban. But opinions are not unanimous among the broader Cuban-American community in South Florida.
Fifty-three percent of South Florida Cuban-Americans want to continue the embargo, while 47 percent oppose its continuation, according to a 2011 poll sponsored by Florida International University. Close to 80 percent said the embargo has not worked.