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
Castro’s visit comes amid a busy time for U.S.-Cuban relations. A growing contingent in the U.S. Congress is pressing for an easing of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. Cubans continue to risk dangerous journeys across the Florida Straits to enter the United States. And then there’s Elian Gonzalez — the Cuban-American electorate is still reeling from Castro’s victory in the international custody battle over the boy.
Castro has already met with many leaders on this visit, including Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, President Tran Duc Luong of Vietnam and Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
Castro is among 18 dignitaries provided with extra security during his visit. Several U.S. lawmakers have made it clear they’re less than happy to have him here.
In a Sept. 1 press conference on traffic and security arrangements for the U.N. summit, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said the U.N. delegates would receive top-notch protection, but added “as far as I am concerned some of them I think are despicable, horrible human beings and you should always make that point every time you get a chance to make that point.” Regarding Castro, Giuliani said, “If you want me to make the point that Fidel Castro is a murderer, I’m more than willing to make the point that Fidel Castro is a murderer.”
And last week Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., demanded that neither Castro nor any other high-ranking Cuban official be allowed into the country for the U.N. summit. Under U.N. conventions, however, the United States can only deny visas for issues of national security.
Castro Addresses the U.N. Summit
Meanwhile, Castro, renowned for his marathon speeches, took to the U.N. Assembly Hall podium on Wednesday, decked out in a dark blue suit — a change from his usual combat fatigues. Staring up at him was a yellow light that warns speakers when their five-minute limit is approaching.
Castro pulled out a white handkerchief and covered the light, and the audience of kings, presidents and prime ministers burst into laughter.
But as he did at the U.N. 50th anniversary celebration five years ago, Castro stuck to the five-minute limit.
Without mentioning the United States by name, Castro told the U.N. Millennium Summit that the principle of sovereignty could not be sacrificed “to an abusive and unfair order that a hegemonic superpower” uses “to try to decide everything by itself.”
Castro, viewed by many developing countries as their premier spokesman, said rich nations use their power “to make us poorer, more exploited and more dependent.” ABCNEWS' Rogene Fisher and John Cochran, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.