Rubio Says Obama Cuba Opening Won’t Bring Freedom for Cubans

President Barack Obama’s opening to Cuba is unlikely to bring democracy and freedom to the island nation, Senator Marco Rubio said today.

At the first congressional hearing since Obama announced a move toward normalization of relations with Cuba’s Communist regime, Rubio, a Florida Republican and potential 2016 president candidate, said Tuesday that he has “deep reservations and, in many instances, direct opposition” to Obama’s initiative.

The son of Cuban immigrants said his opposition stems from “the simple reason I do not believe they will be effective in bringing about the sort of political opening on the island of Cuba that all of us desire for the Cuban people.”

Rubio spoke at a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee which featured testimony by Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. Jacobson, who was in Havana last month, is leading normalization talks with Cuba, which Obama announced on Dec. 17.

“The president’s initiatives look forward and are designed to promote changes that support universal human rights and fundamental freedoms for every Cuban, as well as changes that promote our other national interests,” Jacobson said in written testimony.

Out of Sync

While opposition to easing U.S. diplomatic and trade restrictions on Cuba has long been an article of faith in Florida’s Republican politics, Rubio is out of sync with the majority of the public, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The public supports normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba by 64 percent to 31 percent, according to the poll released Dec. 23 with a margin of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. Republicans are split, 49 percent to 47 percent.

Americans favor ending travel restrictions by 74 percent to 24 percent, according to the poll. Republicans back lifting the restrictions by 64 percent to 33 percent.

That sentiment was reflected at the hearing by Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who said he supports allowing more U.S. citizens to visit the island.

While “not an acknowledgment” that human rights conditions are better, more outside contact will help encourage change in Cuba, he said.

White House Aides

In response to repeated questions from Rubio, Jacobson, the State Department’s top official for Latin America, said she and other State Department officials weren’t informed about a series of secret negotiations held over 18 months by two top members of the White House’s National Security Council staff. Those officials were Ben Rhodes, a close Obama aide who is deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, and Ricardo Zuniga, the NSC’s top Latin American specialist.

Jacobson said she didn’t know whether Secretary of State John Kerry was kept informed and that she was told of the secret diplomacy “a couple of months” before the president’s announcement.

Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said that he and Jacobson were involved in general interagency policy debates about changing Cuba policy. They also took part in discussions about gaining freedom for Alan Gross, a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development imprisoned in Cuba, and other Cuba matters.

Rubio said the White House declined his request for Rhodes and Zuniga to testify.

‘Bad Deal’

The back-channel negotiations authorized by Obama, which led to Gross’s freedom and a commitment to resume diplomatic relations, was conducted with help from Pope Francis and marked a major change after 50 years of U.S.-Cuban hostility.

Senator Bob Menendez, a Cuban-American Democrat from New Jersey, said the secret talks produced a “bad deal.”

“Let me be as clear on this issue as I have been since December –- 18 months of secret negotiations produced a bad deal -– bad for the Cuban people,” he said. “While it may have been done with the best of intentions, in my view, we’ve compromised bedrock principles for minimal concessions.”

Jacobson said there’s nothing in the policy change that’s not in the U.S. national interest, and there are elements that the Cuban regime wouldn’t have wanted.

Pressed repeatedly by Rubio, Jacobson says she “can’t imagine” agreeing to limit contacts with human-rights groups as a condition for reopening the U.S. embassy in Havana.

Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said the old U.S. policy only isolated the U.S. and gave the Cuban government a “convenient scapegoat” for the island’s problems.

“We have spent the past five decades pursuing a policy that hasn’t worked,” she said.

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