Republican lawmakers on Wednesday skewered President Obama’s announcement that the U.S. and Cuba have agreed to reopen embassies in each other’s capitals—with several vowing to block the confirmation of any U.S. ambassador to the communist country.
Critics, including several GOP presidential candidates, are arguing that the president -- in ending 50 years of frozen relations -- is rewarding Cuba’s dictatorial regime. Immediately after Obama announced what he called a “historic step forward," Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas promised to oppose any ambassador to Cuba or funding for an embassy construction.
“I, for one, want the Cuban people to know that there are still those who stand with them, and who know the Castros for what they are,” said Cruz, a Cuban-American, in a statement. “I will hold any nominee President Obama sends to the Senate to be ambassador to Cuba, and I will work to disapprove any new funds for embassy construction in Havana, unless and until the President can demonstrate that he has made some progress in alleviating the misery of our friends, the people of Cuba.”
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida issued a similar statement, arguing the Obama administration has “continued to look the other way and offer concession after concession.” Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, also said he intended to oppose the confirmation of any ambassador to Cuba until abuses of the Castro regime are addressed.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker posted a Facebook note calling the move to establish full diplomatic relations "yet another example of his appeasement of dictators" and accused him of "foolishly rewarding the brutal Castro dictatorship and selling out the Cuban people."
And Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has said in the past that he’d use his power to block the use of funds to open an embassy in Cuba, issued a statement criticizing Obama’s decision on Wednesday saying “As president, I would not honor this decision with Cuba and I would close the embassy until the Castro brothers actually change their behavior.”
Of course, the Obama administration could still operate an embassy in Cuba without an official U.S. ambassador there. There are some countries, like Venezuela, who have no U.S. ambassador but have a deputy chief of mission, who essentially perform the same duties as ambassadors but don’t have to go through a confirmation process, explained Carl Meacham, director of the Americans Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to msnbc.
“But from a symbolic standpoint, obviously having an ambassador is more attractive because it’s like you’re getting the full treatment form the United States ... If they have an ambassador on the Cuban side and we can’t get one out of Congress, we’ll look really stupid,” said Meacham. He noted that it only takes one senator to delay the nomination process, so it's looking “less likely that we’ll actually have a serving ambassador in Cuba.”
Other 2016 GOP presidential candidates who are not currently in office (and wouldn’t have a say in confirming a nominee) also voiced their disapproval on Wednesday, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. While the issue gives Republicans a perch to rail against Obama’s foreign policy, it isn’t necessarily a slam dunk issue. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll from earlier this year, 60% of Americans support the Obama administration to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba.
And the fight over Obama’s policy toward Cuba doesn’t fall neatly into party lines. Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, has previously said normalizing relations with the Caribbean country is “probably a good idea.” He did not return requests for comment on Wednesday. Similarly, Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada – who visited Cuba this past week as a member of a bipartisan Senate delegation—released a statement saying “With the opening of these embassies, the United States and Cuba continue to build a path that will one day open up travel and lead to numerous opportunities mutually beneficial to the people of both countries.”
While most Democrats have said they are in favor of opening the embassies, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who is also the son of Cuban immigrants, has been a vocal critic. On Wednesday, he argued the message from the Obama administration is “democracy and human rights take back seat to a legacy initiative.”
During a White House briefing, press secretary Josh Earnest said criticism that Obama’s position on Cuba is about his own legacy is “just wrong.” Earnest added that the administration’s “strong preference” would be that once an ambassador is nominated the he or she be treated fairly by the Senate.