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No proof Marco Rubio ‘embellished’ anything about his history

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Embellish (em·bel·lish) (verb) … make (a statement or story) more interesting or entertaining by adding extra details, especially ones that are not true: she had real difficulty telling the truth because she liked to embellish things.

Oxford English Dictionary

Last week, The Post published a front-page story accusing Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) of “embellishing” his family history — questioning his claim that he was the “son of exiles” when his parents had in fact arrived before Fidel Castro took power, not after, as he had previously claimed. “[T]he Florida Republican’s account embellishes the facts,” Post reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia wrote. “Embellish” also appears in the headline.

In using that term, Roig-Franzia was accusing Rubio not simply of being mistaken but of lying (an “account” cannot embellish itself). Yet his article offers no evidence that Rubio deliberately misled anyone or that he knew his parents arrived before Castro took power but said otherwise. Democrats have pounced on The Post’s unfounded accusation to question Rubio’s honesty and character.

Rubio openly admits he was mistaken. In an interview, he said, “Until very recently I did not realize the date, and once I realized it I stopped saying it.” This is confirmed by Miami Herald reporter Marc Caputo, who interviewed Rubio in September (long before Roig-Franzia contacted the senator for his story) and writes, “Rubio clearly told us his parents came here before Castro took power. He struggled to recall the year. . . . When asked pointedly: Was it before the [Cuban] revolution? Rubio said it was before the revolution.”

What Rubio takes issue with is the Post’s accusation “that I deliberately misstated the date and as a result gained a political advantage. And that is outrageous.” The fact is, Rubio says, he had nothing to gain politically from saying his parents arrived after Castro’s rise. “Nobody voted for me because they thought my parents came in ’59 instead of ’56,” he says.

Indeed, the revelation that his parents arrived before Castro took power actually benefits him politically. Many Latinos resent the preferential treatment Cubans received in the United States after the Cuban revolution, including an expedited path to permanent residency. But Rubio’s parents arrived before Castro came to power and those preferences were enacted into law.

But what has Rubio most incensed is The Post’s suggestion that the date of his parents’ arrival means he is wrong to say he is the “son of exiles.” Roig-Franzia wrote, “In Florida, being connected to the post-revolution exile community gives a politician cachet that could never be achieved by someone identified with the pre-Castro exodus, a group sometimes viewed with suspicion.” Rubio responds, “That’s not true. And you won’t find a single credible Cuban American that will back him up on that. An exile by definition is someone who is separated from their country for political reasons. And my parents were separated from the nation of their birth for political reasons. They could not visit there. They could not live there. They were exiles.”

Pepe Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, agrees that the date makes no difference: “I don’t see any difference between his parents and myself and everyone else who came here.”

As the son of an exile, I could not agree more. During World War II, my mother fought in the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis and left Poland as a prisoner of war. She did not return to her homeland because it was subsequently taken over by the Communists. The fact that she left during Nazi rule did not make her any less an exile from Communist Poland, and the fact that Rubio’s parents left during Fulgencio Batista’s rule does not make them any less exiles from Communist Cuba.

Some ask: Is it really possible that Rubio’s parents did not tell him all the specifics of their journey to America? It is. Immigrants with painful histories often do not like discussing some details with their children. Growing up, I knew that my mother had fought in the Warsaw Uprising, but it was not until many years later that I persuaded her to do an oral history. She did it under protest. And even after spending countless hours talking to her, I could not tell you precisely what year she arrived in America.

Roig-Franzia told me he stands by “every word” of his article. He would have been correct if he had simply reported that he had uncovered inaccuracies in Rubio’s story. But he went too far in accusing Rubio of “embellishing” and questioning his place as a member of the exile community. You don’t charge someone of lying without proof. And you don’t question the core of someone’s identity without a shred of evidence.

“This went to the heart of who I am and who my parents were,” Rubio says. “My dad is not around to defend or define himself. My mom is in no condition to do so. And I’m not going to let some guy who has never even met my parents define who they are.”

© The Washington Post Company