A host of prominent Republicans with strong political connections to Florida’s Hispanic community — including Sen. Marco Rubo (R-FL), former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) — rushed to condemn President Barack Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba on Wednesday, citing the Castro regime’s oppression and dictatorial form of government.
“Mr. Obama’s new Cuba policy is a victory for oppressive governments the world over and will have real, negative consequences for the American people,” Rubio wrote in an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal. Bush — who announced his intention to explore a presidential bid in 2016 — pointed to the country’s “disastrous human rights record” and Ros-Lehtinen argued that normalization of relations “will embolden the Castro regime to continue its illicit activities, trample on fundamental freedoms, and disregard democratic principles.”
But GOP hard liners haven’t always been so disdainful of trading with nations who don’t live up to America’s democratic ideals.
In August, top aides to Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen “took an all expenses paid trip to China this month courtesy of the Chinese government,” the Tampa Bay Times reported. The trips — by Rubio’s deputy chief of staff Sally Canfield and Ros-Lehtinen chief of staff Arthur Estopinan — included meetings with Chinese government officials and could have exceeded “$10,000 a person.”
At the time, Rubio spokesperson Alex Conant defended the travel to the Times, arguing that China is a strong economic competitor to the U.S. and that diplomatic relations could actually help spread American freedom and democracy to the world’s most populous nation.
“While he abhors many of the Chinese government’s actions, as a member of the Senate’s foreign relations and intelligence committees, he cannot ignore their growing geopolitical importance,” Conant said. “Also, as the ranking member of the Senate’s Asia subcommittee, he cannot ignore the largest nation in Asia, and recognizes that staff travel approved by the U.S. government and Senate ethics is sometimes necessary in helping advance our advocacy on a host of foreign policy issues.”
Ironically, Obama made the same argument about Cuba in a speech announcing the administration’s new approach, arguing that “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.”
Bush has profited from foreign investments in China through BH Logistics, which he chairs. The $26 million fund was established in April “with backing from a Chinese conglomerate,” Bloomberg reported earlier this week. In 2011, the former two-term Florida governor also personally visited the tropical island of Hainan, a Chinese province, and “praised Hainan’s environmental and economic development and spoke hopefully of establishing stronger ties between Hainan and Florida.”
While China’s human rights record is improving — much like Cuba’s — Human Rights Watch reports that “the government remains an authoritarian one-party state. It places arbitrary curbs on expression, association, assembly, and religion; prohibits independent labor unions and human rights organizations; and maintains Party control over all judicial institutions.”
“It represents a real double standard,” Chris Sabatini, senior policy director of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, told the Times after learning about the aides’ Cuba trips in August. “At the same time they are denying citizens’ right to travel to Cuba, they feel staff can travel to another country that has the same pattern of human rights abuses.”
Indeed, the very same lawmakers who strenuously object to normalizing relations with Cuba don’t bat an eyebrow at America’s diplomatic ties to more regressive actors. As the Huffington Posts’ Igor Bobic points out, “Of the 16 countries identified by a recent Freedom House report as the world’s worst human rights abusers (Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Burma, Chad, China, Cuba, Laos, and Libya), only four lack a U.S. diplomatic presence (North Korea, Syria, Cuba, and Somalia, which is restoring relations).”
Requests for comment to Rubio’s spokesperson for this article were not returned.