Castro government critics on Capitol Hill paid scant regard Wednesday to President Obama’s appeal for Congress to back his decision to restore diplomatic relations with Havana. Several pledged instead to oppose any nominee for U.S. ambassador to Cuba and withhold funds for construction work on a reopened U.S. Embassy.
Lawmakers slamming the announcement included three of the four sitting senators competing for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) both pledged to block any ambassadorial nominee while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that as president, he would shutter the embassy.
In his White House announcement Wednesday Obama said that “Americans and Cubans alike are ready to move forward. I believe it’s time for Congress to do the same.”
He noted that some lawmakers from both parties have begun work on the steps needed to lift the embargo on Cuba, but observed that “there are those who want to turn back the clock and double down on a policy of isolation.”
“But it’s long past time for us to realize that this approach doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked for 50 years.”
But Cruz criticized what he called Obama’s “policy of unconditional surrender to Fidel and Raul Castro.”
The president was “rewarding one of the most violently anti-American regimes on the planet with an embassy and an official representative of our government,” he said.
“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,” Cruz said.
Rubio, like Cruz an American of Cuban ancestry, said the communist regime had increased its repression of the Cuban people even as it negotiated with the U.S. on restoring ties.
“The Obama administration has continued to look the other way and offer concession after concession,” he said.
Citing concerns about Cuba’s harboring of fugitives from U.S. justice, outstanding legal claims over properties confiscated by the regime, U.S. diplomats’ freedom to travel and meet with dissidents, and the issue of securing greater political freedoms for Cubans, Rubio said he intended to “oppose the confirmation of an ambassador to Cuba until these issues are addressed.”
“As president, I would not honor this decision with Cuba and I would close the embassy until the Castro brothers actually change their behavior,” said Graham in his reaction. “By suggesting the dictatorship in Cuba is an acceptable or normal government, we are sending the worst possible message at the most critical time.”
Other critics in the Senate included Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who pledged Wednesday to “work with my colleagues to block funding for a new embassy and confirmation of a new ambassador until there is real, fundamental change that gives hope to the oppressed people of Cuba.”
New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, also a Cuban-American, said the Castro regime was once again “being rewarded while they jail dissidents, silence political opponents, and harbor American fugitives and cop killers.”
“An already one-sided deal that benefits the Cuban regime is becoming all the more lopsided.”
A senior State Department official, briefing on background, said “it would be a shame if Congress impeded implementation of some of the very things that we think they – we all agree we want to do, such as better outreach to the Cuban people all over the island or additional – for example, the possibility of additional agencies being present in Cuba to help facilitate dialogue on fugitives and law enforcement.”
“These are the kinds of things that we can do as we move forward in this relationship with a more robust embassy,” the official said. “And I would assume that most on the Hill agree those are a good thing to do.”
Advancing human rights?
The fourth Senate Republican campaigning for the 2016 nomination, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) did not respond to Obama’s decision, but when the president last December first announced plans to normalize ties with the island Paul said that “opening up Cuba is probably a good idea.”
Away from Congress, criticism of Obama’s announcement also came from other GOP presidential hopefuls, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
The administration argues that opening up Cuba will help to promote human rights, a view Flatly disputed by the move’s critics.
Obama said that despite good intentions, isolating Cuba had not succeeded in promoting democracy for the Cuban people, but on the contrary had cemented the status quo and isolated the U.S. from its neighbors in the hemisphere.
“Nobody expects Cuba to be transformed overnight,” he said. “But I believe that American engagement – through our embassy, our businesses, and most of all, through our people – is the best way to advance our interests and support for democracy and human rights.”