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WH tries to regain control of message

From NBC's Athena Jones

PORT OF SPAIN, TRINIDAD, April 18 – The White House wants you to know that sometimes a handshake is just a handshake and a smile is just a smile.

On day two of the Summit of the Americas, U.S. relations with just two of the more than three dozen countries present – Cuba and Venezuela – dominated the headlines, overshadowing the Obama administration's message to the region about a wide range of issues from economic cooperation, to clean energy to fighting poverty and drug trafficking.

Despite the measures Obama announced last week -- including lifting some restrictions on travel to Cuba and on remittances to family members in Cuba -- the hemisphere is all but united in its desire to see the United States do more to normalize relations with Cuba and leaders here repeatedly made that clear in speeches last night and in discussions today.

But it wasn't the Castros – who were not invited to the meeting here in this island nation – but Venezuela's strongman Pres. Hugo Chavez, who repeatedly thrust himself into the spotlight.

Before the summit's opening session on Friday, Pres. Obama greeted Chavez with a handshake and a smile, a moment that was captured on film. The Venezuelan government quickly released the photos showing Obama wearing the wide grin he is known for and congenially clasping the hand of one of the hemisphere's staunchest critics of U.S. policy.

Then on Saturday, Chavez used Obama's morning meeting with South American leaders to present the American president with a book – "The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent" by Eduardo Galeano – a tome about the economic exploitation of the region by Europe and the U.S. Obama shook Chavez's hand upon receiving the gift, but this time appeared serious and unsmiling.

The White House seemed concerned about all the attention the Venezuelan leader's actions – and Obama's response to them – were getting.

Four officials addressed the handshake and the smile over the course of the afternoon, beginning with Jeffrey Davidow, a former ambassador to Venezuela, Mexico and Zambia and an adviser to Obama on the Summit of the Americas.

NBC's Chuck Todd spoke with Davidow, who is president of the Institute of the Americas at the University of California at San Diego, about Chavez and other the news making headlines. (Click here to read transcript of the entire interview.)

"Hugo Chavez has a real capacity to get his picture in the newspaper or on TV," Davidow said. "A case in point, last night the president was at a reception. He shook hands with 33 other presidents, smiled with 33 other presidents; one picture gets in the newspaper. I think the press is focused on Hugo Chavez. I don't think Barack Obama is focused on Hugo Chavez.

"I'd say that you know the fact that president was photographed shaking hands with him, a smile and a handshake does not mean a new relationship," Davidow went on to say a few minutes later. "We have a very strained relationship with Venezuela. We'd like to see it get better."

* Driving home the point

And just in case listeners missed the point the White House was trying to make about the insignificance of a handshake and a smile, several administration officials repeated the White House's line on the matter at an afternoon briefing.

To wit. Here was Larry Summers, a top economic adviser: "I think there is also a sense being projected to us from a number of different quarters of desire for a different relationship with the United States than has existed historically, but of course relationships depend on more than smiles and handshakes and so we'll have to see what happens going forward."

A short while later, Denis McDonough, a foreign policy adviser, followed with this: "Let me just underscore a point that Larry made and referred to earlier that obviously there's great hope that with all the outreach to the president from some of the countries in the region, that we are indeed starting new relationships. But, I think the president has been making very clear that while handshakes and photographs and smiles are important, they're certainly not good enough and there will be tests on whether we have in fact entered a new era, or a new set of relationships in days and weeks and months ahead."

And finally there was White House Press Sec Robert Gibbs.

"The smiles and handshakes of one leader saying he wants to be his friend is a wonderful opportunity to match actions with words," Gibbs said