Sen. Marco Rubio criticized President Barack Obama on Tuesday for shaking hands with Cuban leader Raul Castro while attending the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
The Florida Republican and son of Cuban immigrants said, "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," The Hill reports
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"It remains clear that Cuba is the same totalitarian state today that it has been for decades. This totalitarian state continues to have close ties to terrorist organizations."
Rubio has been an outspoken critic of the Castro regime, saying it sponsors terrorism both abroad and within Cuba. According to The Hill, he's also been critical of the Obama administration in the past for reducing restrictions on travel to Cuba, which were enacted as part of an economic embargo during the Cold War.
The United States has not had diplomatic relations with Cuba in more than 50 years. Raul Castro took over from his ailing brother Fidel Castro in 2008.
The handshake Tuesday between a U.S. president and a post-revolutionary Cuban leader was the first since 2000, when Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro met at a U.N. function in New York. The brief Clinton-Castro encounter came 41 years after Richard Nixon, then vice president, met with Fidel Castro shortly after he took power in 1959.
At the Summit of the Americas in 2009, Obama shook hands with the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who called the United States "the biggest menace to our planet." That encounter was heavily criticized at the time by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
On his way up to the podium to give a eulogy to Mandela, Obama also shook hands with Zimbabwe's tough ruler Robert Mugabe and gave a hug to Dilma Rousseff, president of Brazil, who has been fiercely critical of the U.S. government over the National Security Agency spying scandal, according to NBC News
A White House official said the Castro handshake "wasn’t a pre-planned encounter," and pointed out that it was in keeping with Mandela's struggle for peace and freedom based on basic human rights.
"Above all else, today is about honoring Nelson Mandela, and that was the president's singular focus at the memorial service," said an official. "We appreciate that people from all over the world are participating in this ceremony."
But the criticism of the president's actions appeared to be spreading through a series of angry comments via Twitter.
"He'll stop at Lenin's tomb, lay wreath at Hitler's bunker on way home," said one tweet.
Former President Jimmy Carter, however, sought to put the handshake in perspective, telling CNN it was "something significant."
"I hope it will be an omen for the future," he said.
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