There was a handshake after all.
Cuban President Fidel Castro spoke for the first time with his U.S. counterpart Bill Clinton and shook his hand in a crush of U.N. dignitaries on Thursday.
“As I understand it, it was a chance encounter that Mr. Castro initiated,” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said. “They talked for a couple of minutes and there was no substance. It was just a cordial conversation but no substance, as I understand it.”
Diplomats and other observers believed it was also the first time since Castro, 74, took power in 1959 that the communist leader had shaken the hand of an American president.
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart had earlier said the two presidents did exchange a few words, but denied they shook hands. However, the White House later confirmed that a handshake had indeed taken place.
Castro and Clinton had attended a lunch for the roughly 150 world leaders taking part in the summit and were making their way to a conference room for a group photograph when the encounter took place.
Some anti-Castro activists were outraged by the handshake.
“He should check his hands because Mr. Castro’s are bloodied,” Mariela Ferretti, spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation, told the New York Daily News. She called the handshake and chit-chat “another exercise in poor judgment on the part of Mr. Clinton.”
Castro Excluded From Gala
The Cuban dictator was excluded from President Clinton’s reception for world leaders Thursday night.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley said Castro was among a number of leaders who were not invited to a reception hosted by Clinton at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Thursday night. The United States does not have diplomatic relations with Cuba and maintains economic sanctions against Castro’s government.
“Not every participant in the Millennium Summit was invited,” Crowley said. “There are countries around the world that we have serious concerns about such as their support for terrorism. And we didn’t think it was appropriate to invite them to a reception hosted by the president of the United States.”
He said, for example, that officials from Iraq, Iran and Libya were not invited.
Together in the Crowd
Asked if the encounter signaled a thaw in relations, Crowley said it did not change U.S. concerns about Castro’s government.
“It signifies that Fidel Castro used the opportunity of yesterday’s lunch to greet the president but it doesn’t change the concerns that we have about the Castro regime and the fact that there continues to be no movement toward democracy in Cuba as we believe the Cuban people deserve,” he said.
“It is the first time they have actually spoken,” he added.
Cuban officials were not immediately available for comment. In Havana, Cuban state-run media gave blanket coverage to Castro’s U.N. visit but did not refer to the handshake.
Chances to meet U.S. presidents have been rare since Castro took power, although Clinton has in the past been in the same meeting room with the Cuban leader.
Castro met President Richard Nixon, who was vice president at the time, during an unofficial visit to the United States in April 1959, just months after he took power.
No Diplomatic Exchanges