Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida arrives for a procedural vote at the US Capitol in Washington last week.

For Sen. Marco Rubio, Cuba entwines passion and presidential aspiration

Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio has spoken forcefully against President Obama's decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba. For the potential presidential candidate, it's an important moment.

For Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, staunch opposition to President Obama’s restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba is not just a matter of politics. It’s personal.

Central to the Florida senator’s biographical narrative – and his potential bid for the presidency – is that he is the son of Cuban immigrants who raised their American-born children on their modest earnings as a bartender and a hotel maid.

It’s a point he makes over and over, whether he’s rolling out an antipoverty agenda or positioning himself as a serious GOP foreign-policy hawk in a flock of possible Republican presidential candidates.

“As a descendent of Cuban immigrants and someone who’s been raised in a community of Cuban exiles …,” Senator Rubio began his fiery press conference on Wednesday.

When asked why he could speak so confidently about the negative impact of diplomatic relations with Cuba – he said it would “tighten” the regime’s grip on power for decades – he answered: “Because I know the Cuban regime and its true nature better than this president does or anybody in his administration does.”

He argues that every “concession” on Cuba by the White House so far – such as loosened travel restrictions – has made the regime only more repressive. New wealth that may come from more commerce and travel will enrich only the ruling elite and military, Rubio contends. Meanwhile, he argues, the US gets nothing in return for normalization: no free elections in Cuba, no free press, no democratic progress of any sort.

On Capitol Hill, Rubio is not alone in his heritage or his views on this matter.

Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, also of Florida, fled Cuba with her mother and brother when she was 8. Her father, who was an anti-Castro activist, joined them several months later. When she was a child in Havana, she and her brother had to abide by a strict bedtime, so the adults could freely plot their overthrow of the regime. She called President Obama’s move “a propaganda coup for the Castro brothers.”

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R) of Florida named the president “the appeaser-in-chief” at a press conference in Miami with the congresswoman and senator on Thursday. 

The congressman was born in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but his father was a politician and government official at the time of Cuban President Batista – overthrown in 1959 by Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and other rebels. Mr. Diaz-Balart’s father founded the first anti-Castro movement, La Rosa Blanca (The White Rose).

Rubio’s parents actually left Cuba three years before Castro came to power – which contradicts some of the senator’s earlier comments that he’s the “son of exiles” forced from Cuba, a point he’s since corrected. 

In his memoir, “An American Son,” he writes that his parents returned to Cuba post-Castro, thinking to resettle. But they were alarmed by descriptions of mass arrests from his father’s brother and scared when his mother was initially barred from returning to Miami.

The Rubios’ more-typical tale of migration for a better life makes the senator no less of an anti-Castro firebrand than his colleagues, however, nor any less opposed to president’s surprise normalization move.

And this week, his Cuba connection gave him an opportunity to seize the political spotlight. On Wednesday, he made more than a dozen television appearances, according to Politico, getting a head start on Fox News before the president even made his remarks.

Rubio’s opening came just a day after Jeb Bush announced he was exploring a presidential run. That announcement brought immediate speculation that a run by the former Florida governor – and brother and son to two presidents – would leave Rubio behind.

As it stands, Rubio is among the GOP stragglers in polling for 2016 – clocking in at 7 percent, according to a Dec. 11 to 14 Washington Post-ABC News poll, and 3 percent according to other polls. Mr. Bush, on the other hand, leads in the polls.

Bush, too, criticized the president’s “dramatic overreach,” writing on his Facebook page that it “undermines America’s credibility and undermines the quest for a free and democratic Cuba.”

It has been conventional wisdom that no presidential candidate could win the electorally rich state of Florida – where the Miami area is home to America’s largest Cuban community – without taking a firm stand against normalizing relations with Havana. But Barack Obama won Florida in 2008 and 2012, the second victory coming after he had relaxed travel and other restrictions with Cuba in his first term.

Polls show opinions shifting dramatically among Cuban-Americans. According to a June survey by Florida International University, 68 percent of Cuban-Americans in south Florida favor reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, compared with only 39 percent in 2004.

“I don’t care if the polls show that 99 percent of people believe we should normalize relations in Cuba. I’d still believe that before we can normalize relations in Cuba, democracy has to come first, or at least significant steps toward democracy,” Rubio said at his Wednesday press conference.

Which is why Rubio promises he will do everything he can to “unravel” the president’s move – from refusing to fund a US embassy in Havana to blocking a presidential nominee for ambassador. As the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere and Global Narcotics Affairs, he will have a high-profile – and powerful – position from which to wage that fight.

And to tell his personal story.

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