By Steve Holland
ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE (Reuters) - The White House on Tuesday played down President Barack Obama's handshake with Cuban leader Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela's memorial in South Africa, saying it went no further than pleasantries and does not signal a policy change.
"Nothing was planned in terms of the president's role other than his remarks," the deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, told reporters traveling with Obama. "He really didn't do more than exchange greetings with (dignitaries on the podium) on his way to speak, it wasn't a substantive discussion."
While the United States has relaxed prohibitions on family travel and remittances to Cuba and taken other steps to allow for greater contacts between the two countries, points of friction remain in the relationship, Rhodes said.
"We continue to have the same grave concerns about both the human rights situation in Cuba and Alan Gross," Rhodes said, referring to a U.S. government contractor who has been in jail in Cuba for committing what a Cuban judge called a crime against the state.
Still, the meeting has resonance because U.S. relations with Cuba have undergone a surprise warming in recent months with several instances of cooperation instead of the usual hostile rhetoric.
Obama said last month in Miami that it may be time for the United States to revise its policies toward Cuba, against which it has had a trade embargo for more than half a century.
Obama questioned whether the policy that was put in place in 1961 remains an effective way of dealing with U.S. differences with the communist-ruled island nation.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Mark Felsenthal; Writing by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Christopher Wilson, Eric Beech and Paul Simao)