At the same time that a US envoy is in Havana this week negotiating with Cuba to establish a US embassy there, Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida is countering that “we’re not going to fund a fake embassy.”
At a Monitor breakfast on Wednesday, Senator Rubio, the lead Republican voice in opposition to the president’s opening diplomatic relations with the communist nation, said there is a “huge threshold” that needs to be crossed before funding can go forward or an ambassador appointed.
“A real embassy means your diplomats have freedom of movement. A real embassy means you can send anything you want into that embassy – as many computers as you want,” Rubio said. “You can send diplomats in there [and] these diplomats are allowed to travel the country wherever they want.”
A “real” ambassador, he added, should be able to move freely about and “engage in civil society.” He said he would take up these concerns with the administration.
Rubio is an influential figure in the newly GOP-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which handles ambassador nominations. He also is the new chairman of the key subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs. He has a strong ally in Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who is now the ranking member on the foreign affairs committee, and who, like Rubio, is also the son of Cuban immigrants.
At the breakfast, Rubio – who is also considering a run for the presidency – was asked about a split within his own caucus on the Cuba question. For instance, Sen. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona strongly supports the president’s decision to restore relations with Cuba after more than 50 years of stalemate.
Last month, Senator Flake traveled to Cuba with Democratic lawmakers to bring home Alan Gross, a US aid worker imprisoned in Cuba and who was President Obama’s guest at his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night. His return was announced at the same time as the president’s intention to renew diplomatic relations with Havana.
Flake is an enthusiastic believer that building economic ties with Cuba will eventually lead to a more open society there, which Rubio flatly disputes. The Floridian son of a maid and bartender points to three “tyrannies” – China, Vietnam, and Burma – where economic ties with the West have not resulted in open societies.
Rubio said that a majority of his Republican colleagues share his view, and indeed, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky says that he is following Rubio’s lead on this issue.
“My interest in Cuba is singular. I want them to have freedom and democracy,” said Rubio.
He criticizes the president for getting nothing in return for his opening – no press freedoms, no political parties, no elections, just the freeing of 53 prisoners, many of them known as “prisoners of conscience” to human rights groups.
On Wednesday and Thursday, US Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will be in Havana negotiating over issues of migration and the embassy. She leads the highest level US-delegation to travel to the island in decades, after the president in his speech Tuesday night held out “the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere” and bring “new hope for the future in Cuba."
But in advance of the trip, a Cuban diplomat sounded a somber note, according to the Associated Press. The diplomat warned against hopes of reforming the Communist government and said that restoring diplomatic ties wouldn’t immediately lead to a restoration of full relations, according to the AP.
“If there’s a silver lining in all of this, it’s that Cuba matters again,” said Rubio.