WASHINGTON -- With Republicans assailing President Barack Obama for shaking the hand of Cuban leader Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela's funeral on Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry pushed back at a House hearing later that day, saying the focus should be on the revered South African leader.

Answering criticism by anti-Castro Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Kerry also said the hand clasp did not represent any change in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

"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," Ros-Lehtinen told Kerry at a hearing that focused on nuclear negotiations with Iran. She held up photos of the handshake.

"Raul Castro uses that hand to sign the orders to repress and jail democracy advocates," Ros-Lehtinen said, adding that the Cuban regime beat those imprisoned activists, who "will feel disheartened when they see these photos."

Earlier in the day, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told reporters on the Senate side of Capitol Hill that it was like shaking the hand of Hitler.

Kerry suggested that there was no planning or message associated with the handshake and that it was pure happenstance.

"Ladies and gentlemen, today is about honoring Nelson Mandela," Kerry said. "The president was at an international funeral with leaders from all over the world. He didn't choose who's there. They're there to honor Mandela."

He added that Obama did deliver a message to rulers such as Castro.

"I think, as the president said in his speech today honoring Nelson Mandela, he said we urge leaders to honor Mandela's struggle for freedom by upholding the basic human rights of their people," Kerry said.

Interrupted by Ros-Lehtinen, who asked if Kerry thought Cuba was upholding those rights, Kerry answered bluntly, "No."

Still, Obama has signaled since early in his presidency and as recently as last month that he would like to change U.S. policy toward Cuba, which he sees as woefully out-of-date.

Obama's handshake was hardly the first time a U.S. leader pressed the flesh of an unsavory foreign leader. President Richard Nixon shook hands with Fidel Castro, Raul's brother, and Presidents Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt both gripped palms with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, among many other examples.

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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  • 1
    Harry Truman & Stalin
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    President Harry Truman shakes hand with Soviet General Secretary Josef Stalin (right) and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during the Potsdam Conference, which took place between July 17 and 25, 1945.

    Stalin's record on human rights was atrocious, with the death toll directly attributable to his rule reaching around 20 million people. He was also obviously a communist.
  • 2
    Franklin D. Roosevelt & Stalin
    (AP Photo)
    This photo shows Churchill and Stalin mid-hand shake at Livadia Palace in Yalta, Ukraine, on Feb. 13, 1945, but FDR, seated behind the two, also shook hands with the brutal dictator during the conference.
  • 3
    George W. Bush & Saudi King Abdullah
    (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
    President George W. Bush was very close with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia throughout his time in the White House, during which Bush was seen greeting his counterpart with a customary bow, kiss and even the occasional hand-hold.

    A close ally of the United States, Saudi Arabia has had a controversial record on human rights Abdullah's rule.
  • 4
    Obama & Muammar Gaddafi
    (MICHAEL GOTTSCHALK/AFP/Getty Images)
    Obama shakes hands with then-Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi during the Group of Eight (G8) summit in L'Aquila, central Italy, on July 9, 2009.

    Less than two years later, international forces including the U.S., helped topple Gaddafi over concerns about his brutal suppression of a civil war. Gaddafi would ultimately be killed by rebel forces in October of 2011.
  • 5
    Bush & Hosni Mubarak
    (AWAD AWAD/AFP/Getty Images)
    Bush laughs as he shakes hands with then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during a bilateral meeting at the Four Seasons Resort in Sharm el-Sheikh on May 17, 2008.

    Mubarak had a terrible record on human rights. In 2012, following a military coup, the former strongman was sentenced to life in prison for his role in a crackdown that killed hundreds of protesters during the Arab Spring. He was later released from jail.
  • 6
    Richard Nixon & Fidel Castro
    (AP Photo)
    U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro leave Nixon's office April 19, 1959, after a two hour and 20 minute chat behind closed doors. The meeting had been listed on Castro's program as a 15 minute visit. In answer to a question, Castro said the meeting had been "very friendly."
  • 7
    Newt Gingrich & Yasser Arafat
    (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
    Gingrich, then speaker of the House, shakes hands with then-Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat at the beginning of a two-hour meeting in the West Bank town of Ramallah on May 27, 1998.

    Gingrich spoke out loudly and frequently against Arafat and the Palestinian role in peace talks throughout the 1990s, though he did also embrace the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1993.

    During his run for president in 2011, he would say that he believed we had "invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs and historically part of the Arab community and they had the chance to go many places."
  • 8
    Nixon & Mao Zedong
    (AP Photo)
    U.S. President Richard Nixon shakes hands with Chinese communist party leader Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, right, during Nixon's groundbreaking trip to China, Feb. 21, 1972, in Beijing.
  • 9
    Nixon & Nicolae Ceaușescu
    Nixon puts his arm around the shoulder of President Nicolae Ceausescu of the Socialist Republic of Romania as the two men wave to cheering crowds at Otopeni Airport following official farewell ceremonies for Nixon on Aug. 3, 1969.
  • 10
    Henry Kissinger & Augusto Pinochet
    Chilean President Augusto Pinochet greets Secretary of State Harry Kissinger on his arrival at the President's office on June 8, 1976. Kissinger took up the issue of the Human Rights Commission which has raised objections to Chilean abuses of civil liberties, but stopped short of taking any direct American action against Chile in the Organization of American States meeting here.

    Thanks in part to Kissinger's help orchestrating the coup that led to the death of the democratically elected Salvador Allende, Pinochet's dictatorial rule extended up until 1998, though he relinquished the title of president in 1990. More than 3,200 people were executed or disappeared under his reign.
  • 11
    Nancy Pelosi & Bashar Al-Assad
    Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, greets then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in Damascus, on April 4, 2007. Pelosi held talks with Syria's president despite White House objections, saying she pressed Bashar Assad over Syrian support for militant groups and passed him a peace message from Israel's prime minister.

    Assad has since been accused of widespread human rights abuses and war crimes in his attempts to suppress a violent civil war.

    The U.S. threatened to mount military action against Assad earlier this year following allegations that he had launched a chemical weapons attack on civilians.