Several Republican presidential candidates criticized Secretary of State John Kerry’s historic trip to Cuba, where on Friday he oversaw the raising of the American flag at the U.S. embassy for the first time in 54 years—a move that marked a new chapter in the rocky relationship between the two countries.
While Kerry declared “the time has come for us to move in a more promising direction,” GOPers repeated their criticism that opening the embassy rewards the Castro regime while human rights and freedom for the Cuban people are being put on the back-burner.
The two presidential candidates from Florida—home to many Cuban-Americans—were among the first to pounce.
“Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Havana is a birthday present for Fidel Castro – a symbol of the Obama Administration’s acquiescence to his ruthless legacy,” said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in a statement. “U.S. policy has changed, but Cuba has not. It remains an unyielding dictatorship, a tragic example of the folly of communism, and an affront to the conscience of the free nations of the Western Hemisphere.” Bush added that if he’s elected president, he’ll “reverse Obama’s strategy of accommodation and appeasement.”
Similarly, Sen. Marco Rubio, during a speech to the Foreign Policy Initiative in New York, argued the Obama administration has “ensured the regime will receive international legitimacy and a substantial economic boost.” The son of Cuban immigrants pledged that if he’s elected to the nation’s highest office, “as a symbol of our solidarity between my administration and those who strive for freedom around the world, I will invite Cuban dissidents, Iranian dissidents, Chinese dissidents, and freedom fighters from all around the world to be honored guests at my inauguration.”
Cuban dissidents were not allowed to attend the ceremonial opening of the U.S. embassy in Havana, although Kerry was scheduled to meet with a handful of them later.
President Obama announced back in December that he hammered out a deal with Castro to normalize relations with the two countries, essentially bringing down the final remaining pillar of the Cold War. The U.S. has since opened an embassy in Havana and has taken Cuba off its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Obama has also called on lifting the trade embargo on Cuba, which would require the green light from the GOP-led Congress – not an easy task.
Bush and Rubio weren’t alone in their criticism on Friday. Another GOP presidential hopeful, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, released a statement saying, “As president, I would not make sweetheart deal with dictators. Instead, I would focus on facilitating greater freedoms for the Cuban people and securing relief for those harmed by the Castro regime’s oppressions
And fellow 2016 candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas tweeted, “Another Obama-Clinton-Kerry bad deal with neither help Cuban people nor secure America.”
Meanwhile, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s stance has aligned with Obama’s. Late last month, the former secretary of state called on Congress to lift the trade embargo on Cuba, arguing GOPers who are against more engagement represent failed policies of a bygone era.
Clinton acknowledged her past skepticism about policy engagement in Cuba, which she had expressed during her first presidential bid in 2008. Clinton said she understood any hesitancy in the Cuban-U.S. community. However, Clinton said she came to the realization that “our previous policy of isolating Cuba was strengthening Castro’s grip” and was “unintentionally helping” the regime keep a closed society.
During his speech on Friday, Kerry did urge the communist government to give more freedom to those living in the country.
"The United States will always remain a champion of democratic principles and reforms," he said. "We remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders, express their ideas, practice their faith."