WASHINGTON D.C.: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio vowed on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) to block confirmation of anyone who might be nominated as US ambassador to Cuba, saying President Obama’s plan to normalize relations with the Castro regime is “an illusion.”
“I reserve the right to do everything within the rules of the Senate to prevent that sort of
individual from ever even coming up for a vote,” Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants and a possible 2016 presidential candidate, fumed to CNN on Wednesday.
His pledge typified reactions to the White House announcement from grand old party (GOP) lawmakers. They decried Obama’s plan as a sop to Cuban President Raúl Castro and his repressive government and pledged to take action to neutralize it after the 114th Congress convenes next year.
Most Democratic lawmakers took a sharply different view, saying the five-decade-long embargo had done nothing to dislodge Cuba’s autocratic regime.
Even Obama’s critics on the Cuba issue conceded that the White House appears to have authority to take the steps outlined by the president. Those steps don’t appear to supersede the 1996 Helms-Burton Act strengthening the US embargo against Cuba. Only Congress can overturn the law. That seems highly unlikely, with Republicans set to take control of the Senate and expand their majority in the House beginning in January.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t actions opponents can take to thwart Obama’s goal.
Rubio, incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, already is threatening to block federal spending — including money for a US Embassy in Cuba — needed to implement the normalization plan.
His remarks were echoed by South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, who tweeted he would block funding for a new embassy.
“Normalizing relations with Cuba is a bad idea at a bad time,” tweeted Graham, incoming chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the State Department.
Florida GOP Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, whose parents fled Cuba shortly after Fidel Castro rose to power, bluntly tweeted that Obama has become “Appeaser-in-Chief.”
Long overdue move
Democratic lawmakers countered that the president’s actions were long overdue.
Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said it would be “really, really foolish” not to have a US ambassador in Cuba, a country strategic to US interests.
But congressional reaction was not strictly a party-line matter.
Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake joined Leahy in saying it’s time to lift the US embargo.
Flake added that “I think it would be really counterproductive to block funding for an embassy. We’re going to have a lot more Americans traveling to Cuba. To tell those Americans who travel there, you’re out of luck if you have a problem, I just don’t think that’s right.”
Flake and Leahy flew to Cuba on Wednesday morning to greet Alan Gross, an American citizen who had been imprisoned in Cuba on espionage charges and was freed as part of the normalization deal the White House announced on Wednesday.
The deal represents the biggest shift in US-Cuba relations since formal ties were severed in 1961. The move includes more trade, banking and travel between the nations, as well as a general easing of the U.S. embargo against Cuba and the prospect of a US Embassy in Havana, officials said.
In addition to Gross’ release, three Cuban spies were exchanged for an American “intelligence asset” held in Cuba for some 20 years.
New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee until January, and the son of Cuban immigrants, said he was “deeply disappointed” in the president’s Cuba policy.
“I believe that it is misguided and fails to understand the nature of the regime in Cuba that has exerted its authoritarian control over Cuban people for 55 years,” he said at a press conference in New Jersey. “It’s a fallacy to believe that Cuba will reform because an American president opens his hands and the Castro brothers will suddenly unclench their fists,” he added.
Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is taking a wait-and-see approach.
A fierce critic of the Castro regime and supporter of the embargo, Nelson said he’s optimistic a sudden thaw in relations could bring needed changes in Cuba, such as open elections and human rights protections.
“The success of this monumental development depends on Castro’s willingness to grant basic democratic freedoms for the Cuban people,” Nelson said.