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White House Defends Obama Decision to Shake Raul Castro's Hand

December 11, 2013 - 6:00pm

The White House is defending President Barack Obama for shaking the hand of communist tyrant Raul Castro at Nelson Mandelas funeral, even as Republicans continue to attack and a new poll shows Americans are not expecting relations with Cuba to improve over the next year.

The Obama administration continues to deal with the aftermath of the handshake this week. On Wednesday, Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest fielded questions on the handshake and insisted it was not planned. Earnest said Obama and Castro did not talk policy.

Its my understanding, based on people who did talk to the president after his speech, that 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, Earnest said. So there was not an opportunity for the president to chronicle his many concerns about human rights abuses on the island of Cuba.

Earnest also insisted Obama could not speak to Castro about Alan Gross, an American relief worker who was accused of espionage by the Castro regime and has been imprisoned for four years by that communist government.

The president did not have the opportunity to say to him directly something that he said many times, which is that Alan Gross should be released, Earnest said. So they did not have an opportunity to have a robust exchange of ideas. Rather, they had an opportunity to exchange pleasantries.

Earnest said Obama supports the release of Gross. Hes said it before, Earnest said. Maybe its not many times, but he has said before that Alan Gross should be released. I think we put out a statement from the president just a couple of days ago on this topic.

Republicans have been attacking Obama for shaking hands with Castro in recent days. Earlier this week, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Republican Obama defeated in the 2008 presidential election, compared it to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Nazi Germany leader Adolph Hitler at Munich back in 1938. Earnest pushed back against such comparisons.

The president shook hands with everybody who was on the stage, and Mr. Castro was one of those individuals who was on the stage, Earnest said. Even in the few number of times that Ive stood at this podium, Ive been asked about other people who have tried to draw connections between recent political events and the terrible reign of Adolph Hitler. That is a dangerous and usually unwise thing to do in public.

There used to be a pretty important principle that originated in the Republican Party, I believe, that partisan politics should stop at the waters edge, Earnest continued. And its unfortunate that we did see a number of Republicans yesterday who criticized the president for a handshake at Nelson Mandelas funeral. That is, I think, an important progression in a number of politicians views on that topic.

Republicans continue to pound away at Obama for shaking Castros hand. From his perch on the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., ripped the decision.

The excitement exhibited in some liberal quarters regarding the embrace of Raul Castro by President Obama ignores the millions of victims of the totalitarian Castro regime, said DeSantis on Wednesday. I urge the president to secure the release of American Alan Gross from Castros prisons. The Cuban people have been denied liberty for more than 50 years and U.S. policy must be geared toward the establishment of a free and democratic Cuba.

Despite the handshake, a new poll finds little optimism that relations with Cuba will improve in the short run. Rasmussen Reports released a poll on Thursday which finds that a majority of likely voters -- 54 percent -- do not expect relations between the two nations to change much in the next year. While 10 percent think things will worsen, 17 percent believe relations will improve in 2014.Almost a fifth of those surveyed --18 percen t- -are undecided.

The poll of 1,000 likely voters was taken from Dec. 10-11 and had a margin of error of +/- 3 percent.

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