Clinton-Castro Handshake Infuriates Cuban-Americans

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:19 PM EDT

( - News that President Clinton really did shake hands with Cuban leader Fidel Castro at the U.N. summit in New York this week has prompted furious reaction from Cuban-Americans.

"This is a guy [Castro] who aids and supports the actions of terrorists, who harbors criminals that fled the law here in the U.S. and stands everything that this country and our founding fathers were against," said Rudy Fernandez, a spokesman for Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).

"It's unconscionable that the president of the U.S. would shake hands with a dictator who's oppressed millions of people for the last 40 years and is responsible for the deaths of not only Cubans on the island and the imprisonment of dissidents but also for the deaths of U.S. citizens in the shootdown of the Brothers to the Rescue mission in 1996," Fernandez said.

Ros-Lehtinen, herself a Cuban exile, represents Miami's Little Havana community.

Rep. Bill McCollum, the Florida Republican who is now running for a U.S. Senate seat, called the handshake a disgrace.

McCollum's spokesman Bill Colletti said, "It's just one more in a long line of tragic steps that this White House has taken to try and cozy up with a brutal dictator." Colletti also mentioned the Clinton administration's efforts to return six-year-old Elian Gonzalez to Cuba.

"It has long been a strategy of the Clinton White House to liberalize relations with Cuba and it is just makes a mockery of the lives that have been lost and the human tragedy in South Florida of people that have sacrificed their lives for freedom," Colletti said.

Brothers to the Rescue, a Cuban-exile group based in Miami, wondered why the White House first denied, then admitted, that Clinton and Castro had shaken hands during a brief encounter in a crowd of other world leaders. "Why do these people lie to us all the time?" a spokesperson told

When initially asked about the Clinton-Castro encounter Thursday, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said reports of the handshake were "untrue." Later on Thursday, White House officials said there had been a handshake after all. They said Lockhart had been "insufficiently briefed."

Cuban American National Foundation spokesperson Ninoska Perez in Miami told, "This is the same Joe Lockhart who went around after the Elian raid saying that the child had not been forcibly removed despite the use of weapons and that he had not been taken out in the middle of the night but during pre-dawn hours."

Perez continued, "It was pathetic and I suppose what motivated Clinton was the same stupidity that motivated him to have sex in the oval office with Monica Lewinsky."

White House spokesman Jake Siewert said the handshake did not indicate any "thaw" in US-Cuban relations. "This was simply a very casual, very informal meeting at the end of a luncheon with over 100 heads of state," Siewert said, noting that Castro "wanted to come by and see the president."

A spokesman for Vice President Gore said Gore doesn't believe the United States should deal with Castro.

A spokesperson for the Bush campaign said the Republican presidential candidate thinks the Clinton administration should get tougher with Cuba.

"Instead of sending weak signals to Castro by shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries, the Clinton-Gore administration should be sending strong signals and demanding that Castro permit his people to live in freedom," Bush campaign spokesman Ken Lisaius told