Republicans were left steaming on Tuesday after President Barack Obama shook the hand of Cuban leader Raul Castro, with one senior lawmaker likening the act to appeasement of the Nazis.
The gesture between Obama and the brother who took over the duties of longtime Cuban dictator Fidel Castro occurred in South Africa at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, and was seen by millions around the world on live television.
A White House official said it was not “pre-planned”, but that did not stop Republicans from assailing Obama for greeting an iron-fisted ruler.
“It gives Raul some propaganda, to continue to prop up his dictatorial, brutal regime, that's all,” said Senator John McCain, who lost against Obama in his 2008 bid for the White House.
McCain said it was a mistake to “shake hands with somebody who is keeping Americans in prison”.
Jailed US contracter Alan Gross this month marked four years in prison in Cuba, after his arrest and conviction there for distributing communications equipment to Jewish groups.
“What's the point?” McCain said when asked by AFP if Obama should have made the gesture.
“Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler,” he said.
Senator Marco Rubio, whose parents left Cuba three years before Fidel Castro took power, offered a more measured reaction.
Obama “should have asked him about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba”, Rubio told ABC News.
Senate Republican James Inhofe said the handshake was “not appropriate”.
Washington maintains a 52-year embargo against the communist island nation, but ties have thawed somewhat as Obama pledged to reach out to US foes, including Havana.
Distrust of the Castros runs deep in the Cuban-American community, including congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who lectured Secretary of State John Kerry about Obama's gesture.
“Mr Secretary, sometimes a handshake is just a handshake, but when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant,” she told Kerry at a House hearing on Iran.
Asked by Ros-Lehtinen if he felt Cuba was upholding basic human rights for its citizens, Kerry responded: “No, absolutely not.”
Amid the criticism, independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist, praised the handshake as “positive”.
“What I hope it means is that we move toward normal trade relations and normal relations with Cuba,” Sanders said.
Senate Democrat Carl Levin dismissed the controversy, saying: “I think there's too much read into handshakes.” - Sapa-AFP