With friends like these.....

SUMMARY: Fidel Castro criticized Sen. Barack Obama's speech on Cuba, then offered a backhanded compliment that got Florida Republicans to gleefully claim an "endorsement." Not so.

The subject line of an e-mail from the Republican Party of Florida was designed to grab attention: "Fidel Castro endorses Obama."

Inside is a doctored (read: fake) image of Castro holding a poster of Obama. Above Castro are the words, "I love this guy!"

A link in the e-mail sends you to an article that states that Castro gave Obama "a qualified endorsement," calling him "the most advanced candidate" in a commentary published in a Communist newspaper on May 26, 2008.

The absurdity of this claim is demonstrated by the very headline of Castro's article: "The empire's hypocritical politics."

In the article, Castro actually spends most of his words criticizing a speech Obama made to the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami just a few days before, on May 23. In that speech, Obama pledged that if elected, he would immediately allow unlimited family travel to Cuba and family members to send money to relatives in Cuba. Obama reiterated his position that he would meet with the leaders of enemy nations without preconditions. But the thing that really raised Castro's ire was Obama's vow to maintain the embargo as "leverage" to encourage Cuba to "take significant steps towards democracy."

Here was Castro's assessment:

"I feel no resentment towards him (Obama), for he is not responsible for the crimes perpetrated against Cuba and humanity. Were I to defend him, I would do his adversaries an enormous favor. I have therefore no reservations about criticizing him and about expressing my points of view on his words frankly."

Yes, Castro says Obama is "doubtless, from the social and human points of view, the most progressive candidate to the U.S. presidency." Castro also praises Obama's "great intelligence, his debating skills and work ethic." But it amounts to lesser-of-two-evils praise, at best. For example, Castro later calls the embargo that Obama pledged to maintain "an act of genocide."

Said Castro: "Presidential candidate Obama's speech may be formulated as follows: hunger for the nation, remittances as charitable handouts and visits to Cuba as propaganda for consumerism and the unsustainable way of life behind it."

Not exactly a warm and fuzzy endorsement.

Uva de Aragon, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute in Miami, chuckled when asked about the e-mail.

"I'm laughing because it's such a lie," de Aragon said.

The e-mail, she said, was a clear attempt to scare Cuban-American voters into voting for Obama's Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain. Cuban-Americans have historically voted Republican, but that support has begun to erode in recent years. And in a swing state like Florida, the large population of Cuban-Americans in the Miami area represents an important constituency.

"I really think it's insulting," de Aragon said. "Anything that distorts the truth is insulting to my intelligence. I know politics gets dirty, but this is too far."

The Cuban Research Institute is nonpartisan, but de Aragon said she has been a Sen. Hillary Clinton supporter and will back Obama as the Democratic nominee.

Lighten up, said Katie Gordon, press secretary for the Republican Party of Florida. The "cartoon" image, she said, was not meant to be taken literally.

"It was our way of finding a creative way to illustrate a larger point," Gordon said. "The idea is that Sen. Barack Obama has expressed numerous times his willingness to sit down with the leaders of Communist regimes." While Castro did not literally endorse Obama, she said, the point is that Castro stated that "of the people running for president, he (Obama) is the one he'd prefer to work with."

But Castro never says that in his commentary.

Gordon said she doesn't think the image or the headline caused any confusion. The e-mail isn't trying to say that Castro "actually" endorsed Obama, she said. Rather, she said, it was used as an attention-getter.

"The reason we chose to do that format is so that people would read that," Gordon said. "I don't know about you, but I get 200 e-mails per day. And you are not going to open every one. I see one with a title like that, I am more inclined to open it and read the article."

First of all, it was not a "cartoon" image. It was a doctored photograhic image. And a pretty good one. A trained eye, or someone who closely follows Cuban politics, would probably recognize the image as implausible. But it's too realistic-looking to be passed off as a cartoon spoof.

And we realize the word "endorse" can have a formal meaning, as well as a generic one. A New York Times blog originally ran a story about Castro's commentary under a headline that read "Castro's stinging endorsement." The story now carries the headline "Castro Weighs In on Obama." An update notes: "The headline was altered to avoid the misinterpretation that Mr. Castro's remarks represented a formal endorsement." But we don't think Castro's commentary even amounts to a generic "endorsement."

This isn't the first time opponents have tried to pin an unsavory endorsement on Obama. On April 25, 2008, McCain said the militant Islamic organization Hamas had endorsed Obama. PolitiFact looked into it and found that the chief political adviser to the prime minister of Hamas did, in fact, offer supportive words to Obama's campaign, but it wasn't a formal endorsement, and the kind words from a terrorist group were not welcomed by the Obama campaign. Read our ruling here.

We'll note here, too, that after Obama gave a speech on June 4, 2008, to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a potent pro-Israel lobbying group, Hamas leaders changed their tune about Obama. In his speech, Obama strongly voiced a pro-Israel position that led Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri to say this to Reuters in Gaza:

"Hamas does not differentiate between the two presidential candidates, Obama and McCain, because their policies regarding the Arab-Israel conflict are the same and are hostile to us, therefore we do have no preference and are not wishing for either of them to win."

The Florida Republican Party makes our call on this one easy. Even its press secretary acknowledged the claim that Castro endorsed Obama is not accurate. She said it wasn't meant to be taken seriously. We're all for keeping a sense of humor in this long election season. But there are better ways to get people's attention than to distort facts. And this comes off less like a joke and more like an intentional smear. We rate it Pants on Fire.