Republicans and at least one senior Democrat swiftly condemned President Barack Obama’s announcement on Wednesday of a normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba.
The announcement came after the Cuban government released Alan Gross — a prisoner who was being held on espionage charges for trying to establish a telecommunications network outside of government control — and another U.S. intelligence agent. The United States sent back three Cuban spies in exchange. The U.S. will also begin the process of removing Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism. The new approach represents the largest policy change since the U.S. imposed its embargo against Cuba in January of 1961 in the aftermath of the communist revolution led by Fidel Castro.
Republicans expressed enthusiasm for Gross’ release but spoke out against the administration’s new approach. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) argued that America’s policy toward the island nation “should not be revisited…until the Cuban people enjoy freedom — and not a second sooner” and characterized the move as “another in a long line of mindless concessions to a dictatorship.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) — who is of Cuban descent — gave interviews to every news organization promising to “make every effort to block this dangerous and desperate attempt” as the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee. He argued the “new policy is based on an illusion, on a lie” and sets a “dangerous precedent” that “will only cause other tyrants from Caracas to Tehran to Pyongyang to see that they can take advantage of President Obama’s naiveté during his final two years in office.” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the outgoing Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, generally echoed Rubio’s criticism.
But the Republicans’ outcry against the new policy contradicts their own faith in the power of free market economies. Under the administration’s policy, the U.S. will restore full diplomatic relations, ease travel in 12 existing categories, allow the U.S. to import more goods, expand exports to Cuba, among other changes. Opening up trade and investing opportunities will likely push Cuba toward a more American-style economy — the kind Republicans argue leads to freedom.
“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Obama said. “These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach.”
The Castro government in Cuba — led by Fidel’s brother Raul — has also adopted significant reforms in recent years. Cuban citizens can now work in private-sector jobs and own property, engage in some degree of criticism against the government, and prominent dissidents can travel abroad. The government also encourages foreign investment and has released political prisoners. It estimates that the embargo has cost the economy more than $975 billion.
In his remarks, Obama argued that the 50-year embargo has failed to upend the Castro regime, only “providing the Cuban government with a rationale for restrictions on its own people” and pointed out that the United States has long ago re-established diplomatic relations with China, “a far larger country also governed by the Communist Party” that is similarly responsible for squashing dissent and other human rights abuses.
“I am convinced that through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century,” he said.
Polls have consistently found that a majority of Americans, Cuban Americans, and even Republicans support normalization of relations with Cuba. According to a survey poll conducted for the Atlantic Council, 56 percent of Americans and 52 percent of Republicans support “normalizing relations or engaging more directly with Cuba.” More than half of Cuban Americans in Miami agree.
The deal came after 18 months of secret talks with Cuba that were encouraged by Pope Francis. Obama and President Raúl Castro held a 45-minute telephone conversation on Tuesday to finalize the details. It was the first time leaders of the two countries had spoken directly in more than 50 years, administration officials claimed.
During an appearance on Fox News, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) argued that the Castro regime “was struggling” and “gasping, gasping for air” before the administration threw “an economic lifeline” to Cuba. He demanded to know why Obama “completely omitted” The Cuban Missile Crisis — a 13-day confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1962 — from his remarks announcing the new policy and suggested that Obama “is angry at this last election, he’s angry of the tidal wave against Harry Reid.” “There’s no doubt that this is a unilateral president who is exhibiting right now anger and defiance towards the American people,” he said.