The surprising news that the White House has negotiated the release of imprisoned American contractor Alan Gross and is taking steps to normalize relations with Cuba runs directly into the 2016 presidential field, which includes multiple prospective candidates with unique ties to the story.
At the top of the list are Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, who are the children of Cuban immigrants. Jeb Bush spent two terms as governor of Florida, the state with the largest population of Cuban exiles in the United States and where relations with the communist country are a major political issue.
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On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton devoted a section of her book, “Hard Choices,” to Cuba in which she described her own efforts to free Gross and concluded that Obama should consider reopening trade with the island nation.
“Near the end of my tenure I recommended to President Obama that he take another look at our embargo,” Clinton wrote. “It wasn’t achieving its goals and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America.”
She went even further in events promoting her book, calling the embargo “Castro’s best friend” at one July appearance.
Both Rubio and Cruz have been ardent opponents of the Castro regime in the Senate, and a speech by Rubio slamming Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa for calling for normal relations with Cuba went viral this year.
Rubio responded to the news with a media blitz, ripping the White House’s moves in interviews with MSNBC, CNN and Fox News and holding a press conference immediately after the president’s own address on Cuba. He pledged his total opposition in Congress to the new policy, where lawmakers could potentially block funding for an embassy in Havana and refuse to confirm a new ambassador. Ending America’s longstanding embargo on goods and travel from Cuba would require Congressional approval as well.
“On a scale of one to 10, for Cuba, this is a 10. For the U.S., it’s 0.5,” he said in an interview with MSNBC. “I mean – we get nothing, democracy gets nothing out of this, the interests of the Cuban people and their future get nothing out of this.”
Rubio added that Clinton was “aligned with the president’s point of view apparently” and “misguided” in her position on Cuba.
“Barack Obama is the worst negotiator we’ve had as president since at least Jimmy Carter – maybe in the history of the nation,” the senator said earlier on Fox News.
Rubio’s own Senate colleagues Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona and Pat Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, personally escorted Gross back to America. But Rubio told Fox the move “puts a price on every American abroad” and sets a “dangerous precedent” even if he was glad to see Gross released.
“It is just another concession to a tyrant by the Obama administration rather than a defense of every universal and inalienable right that our country was founded on and stands for,” he said later in his press conference. “In short what these exchanges are going to do is they will tighten this regime’s grip on power for decades to come.”
Bush also criticized the Cuba moves in a morning appearance in Florida, according to USA Today, echoing Rubio’s demand that concessions be tied to democratic reforms. “I don’t think we should be negotiating with a repressive regime to make changes in our relationship,” he said.
He followed up with more detailed comments later in the afternoon.
“The Obama Administration’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba is the latest foreign policy misstep by this President, and another dramatic overreach of his executive authority,” Bush said in a statement. “It undermines America’s credibility and undermines the quest for a free and democratic Cuba. The benefactors of President Obama’s ill-advised move will be the heinous Castro brothers who have oppressed the Cuban people for decades.”
Earlier this month, Bush delivered a speech to the anti-Castro Cuba Democracy PAC in which he called on the administration to maintain pressure on the communist regime unless they capitulated on ”the release of political prisoners, fair and free elections, the respect of the rule of law, the cessation of destabilizing countries in the region and the embrace of a free market economy.”
Cruz also slammed the White House deal in a statement, claiming it handed the Castros “both international legitimacy and a badly-needed economic lifeline from President Obama.”
“We have seen how previous Obama administration attempts at rapprochement with rogue regimes like Russia and Iran have worked out, with our influence diminished and our enemies emboldened,” Cruz said. “Now they are revisiting this same disastrous policy with the Castros, blind to the fact that they are being played by brutal dictators whose only goal is maintaining power.”
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, another possible GOP presidential contender, also tied the latest news to a broader foreign policy attack. ”Ruthless dictators like Assad, Putin and Castro think Obama is an easy mark and will be sorry to see him go,” he tweeted. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also commented on Twitter, writing that “Obama talks to dictators more than he does to Congress & allies.”
Among the 2016 Republican prospects, the candidate with the most potential to buck the general trend against the Cuba rapprochement might be Senator Rand Paul, whose father, former Rep. Ron Paul, is a longtime critic of the embargo. According to the Wall Street Journal, the senator has yet to lay out his own position on the issue since taking office.
Polls have shown strong support for normalizing relations with Cuba both nationally and in Florida, a critical swing state, as well as among Cubans living in America. Such surveys were taken when the issue was relatively nonpartisan, however, and it remains to be seen whether Obama’s decisive entry into the debate – like so many ones before it – polarizes public opinion along red and blue lines in the coming days.