Marco Rubio doesn’t hold back criticism of Cuba changes at hearing

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) didn’t hold back when he discussed his opposition to President Obama’s policy changes to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba during a…

Sen. Marco Rubio speaks during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Western Hemisphere Subcommittee February 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on the impact of U.S. policy changes in Cuba. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) didn’t hold back when he discussed his opposition to President Obama’s 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 administration’s efforts to improve U.S.-Cuba relations. Rubio insisted during the hearing that he doesn’t believe the policy changes will bring about democratic change in Cuba.

“I have publicly stated that I have deep reservations—and in many instances direct opposition—to many of the changes that we’re 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.

SEE ALSO: Cuba digs in heels on concessions as part of better US ties

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 deal—a bad deal for the Cuban people. While it may have been done with the best of intentions, in my view, we’ve compromised bedrock principles for minimal concessions.”

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) spoke out agains the new U.S. policies toward Cuba during Tuesday's hearing. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) spoke out agains the new U.S. policies toward Cuba during Tuesday’s hearing. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

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, who’ve 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 won’t 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. policy—any additional sanctions relief—that 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.

“I’ve always said that if somebody is going to restrict my travel it should be a communist, not my own government unless it’s 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.”

SEE ALSO: Fidel Castro breaks silence on US and Cuba efforts to renew diplomatic ties

Meanwhile, both Rubio and Menendez aggressively questioned State Department officials about Obama’s plan to restore U.S. relations with Cuba.

Rubio said he was concerned about a statement Cuba’s 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 regime’s 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.

Assistant Secretary of State For Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson testified during Tuesday's hearing. Also pictured is Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tomasz Malinowski. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Assistant Secretary of State For Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson testified during Tuesday’s hearing. Also pictured is Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tomasz Malinowski. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, responded to Rubio’s question. She said, “I can’t 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 don’t get to have an independent business unless it’s 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 Cuba’s private sector.

“Sen. Menendez, you’re right,” she said. “The government still has a monopoly in many, many areas. Small businesses still feel as if they sort of get the leftovers—what is left of production or supply. But that’s what we’re trying to expand. If we can help provide input for those small businesses, they won’t always be relying on the state for the leftovers.”

SEE ALSO: Cuban dissidents meet; demand recognition of independent society

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 it’s uncertain what will happen next in Cuba, there is a renewed sense of hope among the Cuban people.

“This uncertainty—after decades of absolute depressing certainty that nothing can change in Cuba—carries with it a sense of possibility,” he added. “Our task is to seize that opportunity.”