Cuba Talks Fire Up Rubio on Eve of Campaign Launch

Cuba Talks Fire Up Rubio on Eve of Campaign Launch
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When Marco Rubio launches his bid for the presidency on Monday evening, Cuba figures to loom large.

The Florida senator and son of Cuban parents will announce his campaign at Miami’s historic Freedom Tower, considered the “Ellis Island” of the South because it was the first stop in America for scores of Cubans seeking political asylum after fleeing the Castro regime.

But Rubio’s announcement comes against another, more current backdrop of renewed relations with his ancestral country that majorities of Americans and Cubans support. By the time Rubio’s White House campaign becomes official Monday night, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro will have interacted, at the least, at the Summit of Americas in Panama, marking the highest-level meeting between the United States and Cuba in a half-century.

The president is also considering removing Cuba from the list of countries considered state sponsors of terrorism.

Of the Republicans running for president, perhaps no one has more personal or passionate views of the new Cuba policy than Rubio. In December, when the administration announced a thawing of relations between the two countries, easing a 50-year embargo, Rubio was first out of the gate in opposition to the approach he thought emboldened the Castro regime and gave up U.S. leverage in bringing about democratic change in Cuba, even as the majority of the public showed support for normalizing relations.

“I don’t care if the polls say that 99 percent of people believe we should normalize relations in Cuba,” he said at the time. “I don’t care if 99 percent of people in polls disagree with my position. This is my position, and I feel passionately about it.”

This week, Rubio said it would be “a grave mistake to de-list Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list, one that will further embolden the regime to step up their actions against America’s interests.” And for conference organizers to allow “a brutal dictator” like Castro to attend the summit undermines the future of democracy in the region, he said.

Foreign policy figures to play a key role in the 2016 election and in Rubio’s campaign. As a freshman senator facing concerns within the GOP about the extent of his experience, Rubio’s command of foreign affairs and experience with such issues in the Senate help him stand out, especially among the governors running. Rubio chairs a foreign relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. 

With the rise of ISIS and terrorism abroad, along with other national security issues, Cuba policy doesn’t exactly rank high on voters’ minds. Indeed, 59 percent of Americans, including 56 percent of Latinos, approve of the recent U.S. decision for diplomatic recognition of Cuba, according to an MSNBC/Telemundo/Marist poll this week. A Univision Noticias/Fusion poll published by the Washington Post found 97 percent of Cubans favored normalizing relations.

“He's not going to stop the train to normalizing relations with Cuba,” says Guillermo Grenier, a professor at the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University who has been polling on Cuba relations for two decades. “And Cuba is just not an important enough issue nationally to warrant him to change his position. … But he’s got a chance to focus the Republican base on the possibilities of what changing policies might open up economically.”

For Rubio, the new Cuba policy seems to underscore his and his party’s opposition to President Obama’s carrot-vs.-stick approach to foreign policy, including negotiating with Iran over its nuclear capabilities and opening up relations with Cuba without concessions from Castro. 

For Rubio, Cuba is a compelling component of his biography. The senator’s parents came to the United States from Cuba in 1956, before the rise of the Castro regime. His father worked as a banquet bartender and his mother worked a trio of jobs. Rubio often tells his family’s American Dream story. He said his father “was grateful for the work he had, but that's not the life he wanted for us. He stood behind a bar in the back of the room all those years, so one day I could stand behind a podium in the front of a room,” Rubio said at the 2012 national convention in his prime-time speech introducing nominee Mitt Romney.

This immigrant experience figures to play a significant role in Rubio’s campaign as he positions himself in a crowded field as a fresh face with modern ideas. His biography and rise help him stand out from rivals, including Jeb Bush, the son and brother of presidents.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Florida congresswoman who was born in Havana and came to the U.S. at age 7, told RCP in an email, "Any presidential candidate should aspire to help and empower those people who are denied basic freedoms and human rights due to their oppressors." 

In the lead-up to his 2016 campaign, Rubio has often described his desire to run for president as a way of repaying the debt he owes this country. “America owes me nothing,” Rubio has said, “but I owe America everything.”

Rubio hasn’t changed course in opposing the Obama policy on Cuba even as the public continues to support opening up relations. He was clearly defiant in his committee hearing on the issue in February. And he has maintained that he supports having relations with a free and democratic Cuba, but not with its dictator. Thus, he has focused his opposition on Castro and human rights violations, challenging Obama this week to meet with Cuban dissidents and to take Castro to task on such violations while in Panama. 

As the summit kicked off in Panama City, a fight broke out there between Cuban dissident leaders and supporters of the regime. The group of exiles and Americans opposing the regime said Castro supporters attacked them as they began to peacefully protest.

Rubio called the clash “sickening” and reflective of the true nature of the Castro regime.

“At this week’s gathering in Panama, President Obama should be forceful about demanding full respect for the Cuban people’s human rights; otherwise, he risks emboldening the dictator to escalate his repression because he believes the normalization will happen regardless,” Rubio wrote in an op-ed in National Review.

Rubio argued that appearing with Castro was nothing more than a photo op for the administration to demonstrate progress on the thawed relations, and that it was a mistake to give Castro legitimacy. But he didn’t outright disagree with Obama's meeting with Castro, as long as Obama challenges him and leaders like him on human rights.

“If nothing else, I encourage the president to do what he can this weekend and over the next two years to not leave his successor in an even bigger hole as it relates to Latin America,” Rubio wrote. “The 21st century can be a special one in the Western Hemisphere. Free trade, security alliances, and a commitment to human rights and democracy can give all our people unprecedented opportunities.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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