Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) didnt hold back when he discussed his opposition to President Obamas policy changes to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba during a hearing Tuesday.
The hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, which Rubio chairs, was the first congressional hearing focused on the Obama administrations efforts to improve U.S.-Cuba relations. Rubio insisted during the hearing that he doesnt believe the policy changes will bring about democratic change in Cuba.
I have publicly stated that I have deep reservationsand in many instances direct oppositionto many of the changes that were going to review here today for the simple reason that I believe that they will not be effective in bringing about this sort of political opening on the island of Cuba that all of us desire for the Cuban people, Rubio said in his opening statement.
Rubio has been one of the most outspoken critics of the U.S. policy changes toward Cuba. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) has also been a sharp critic. Both senators are sons of Cuban immigrants.
In his opening statement, Menendez said that despite months of negotiations between American and Cuban officials, they yielded nothing to improve human rights conditions in Cuba.
Let me be as clear on this issue as I have been since December, Menendez said. Eighteen months of secret negotiations produced a bad deala bad deal for the Cuban people. While it may have been done with the best of intentions, in my view, weve compromised bedrock principles for minimal concessions.
The New Jersey Democrat added that while 53 political prisoners were released in Cuba, many more remain in jail. He also said that the Cuban people, whove suffered the most under the Castro regime, still have zero guarantees for any basic freedoms.
Furthermore, he said he is concerned that the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations wont be given access to Cuban jails or Cuban prisoners when they travel to the island.
It was a bad deal, and I will oppose any further changes to U.S. policyany additional sanctions reliefthat are not conditioned on clear, upfront concessions from the Castro regime that moves the Cuban people toward a free and open democratic government, Menendez said.
Speaking in support of the new U.S. policy changes toward Cuba was Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who said he was pleased to see Obama loosen travel restrictions to Cuba a few years ago and then take further steps in December to allow more people to travel to Cuba. He also pointed out that one of the first bills he introduced in Congress 14 years ago was to lift the travel ban on Cuba.
Ive always said that if somebody is going to restrict my travel it should be a communist, not my own government unless its a compelling national security reason, Flake said.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) also spoke in support of the new course in U.S.-Cuba relations, saying that the 54-year-old U.S. embargo on Cuba has failed. She said the best way to promote American values and to empower Cuba citizens as they seek a free and democratic Cuba is through a policy of engagement, not isolation.
Meanwhile, both Rubio and Menendez aggressively questioned State Department officials about Obamas plan to restore U.S. relations with Cuba.
Rubio said he was concerned about a statement Cubas lead negotiator Josefina Vidal made Monday in an interview that was broadcasted in television. Vidal said that if the U.S. wants its diplomats to be able to move freely in Cuba, they must stop supporting and interacting with the Castro regimes political opposition.
Would we accept an embassy in Cuba where our diplomats are not allowed to meet with democracy advocates on the island? Rubio asked State Department officials.
Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, responded to Rubios question. She said, I cant imagine that we would go to the next stage for a diplomatic relationship with an agreement not to see democracy activists.
Meanwhile, Menendez noted that most of the businesses in Cuba are monopolies owned by either the Cuban government or its military, suggesting that the Castro regime will ultimately benefit from Americans traveling to Cuba. You just dont get to have an independent business unless its a small one, he added.
Jacobson agreed. But she also explained that the policy changes make it easier for Americans to provide business training for private Cuban businesses as well as provide other support for the growth of Cubas private sector.
Sen. Menendez, youre right, she said. The government still has a monopoly in many, many areas. Small businesses still feel as if they sort of get the leftoverswhat is left of production or supply. But thats what were trying to expand. If we can help provide input for those small businesses, they wont always be relying on the state for the leftovers.
Tomasz Malinowski, assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor, also defended the new policy shift in U.S.-Cuba relations. He told subcommittee members that isolating Cuba for more than 50 years in hopes of bringing down the Castro regime has not worked.
Malinowski also said while its uncertain what will happen next in Cuba, there is a renewed sense of hope among the Cuban people.
This uncertaintyafter decades of absolute depressing certainty that nothing can change in Cubacarries with it a sense of possibility, he added. Our task is to seize that opportunity.