TAMPA — Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) doesn't want President Obama to visit Cuba this month, but he has some ideas about whom he should meet while on the island.
The Republican presidential candidate hopes that Obama meets with the Ladies in White, the wives of political prisoners or people killed by the Castro regime who march every Sunday after church in Havana and elsewhere. He also wants Obama to meet with Marta Beatriz Roque, a dissident economist who leads the Cuban Institute of Independent Economists.
"I’d love for him to sit and meet with them," Rubio said in an interview on Saturday. "There’s multiple people he can meet with."
Some of the people he suggested regularly visit the United States and have testified before Congress.
Rubio, who is Cuban American, fiercely opposes Obama's outreach to Cuba, and he earned plaudits for strongly defending and explaining his position in a Republican presidential debate last week amid growing national support for lifting a decades-long trade embargo on the island.
Obama is scheduled to visit Cuba this month, making him the first sitting U.S. president to do so in 88 years. The trip is expected to include meetings with President Raúl Castro, business leaders and at least some members of "civil society," a more diplomatic term for dissidents.
But Secretary of State John F. Kerry recently postponed a preparatory visit to Cuba amid a dispute with Cuban officials over whom exactly Obama could meet during his travels. The White House hasn't publicly released specific details about the trip.
Dissidents, however, have already met with American officials. Kerry has met with dissident leaders at the residence of U.S. charge d’affairs Jeffrey DeLaurentis during his visits to Cuba. During the first official U.S. visit to Cuba after Obama announced plans to reestablish ties, Roberta Jacobson, a U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, met with Miriam Leiva, founder of the Ladies in White; Roque; and others, including Yoani Sánchez, a blogger who has written favorably about the U.S. policy changes. Her site is blocked in Cuba but is widely read outside the country.
Rubio has denounced Obama's plans to visit Cuba and said Saturday that he would consider the trip a success only if the Cuban government announced specific plans to expand freedoms.
The trip will be successful if "the Cuban government announces after meeting with Barack Obama [that] we’ve decided to create democratic openings in Cuba. We’re going to allow independent media outlets. We’re going to free every political prisoner. We’re going to stop detaining dissidents. Any sort of progress in that direction would be a positive development, much along the lines of what they were able to get out of Myanmar," Rubio said, referring to the country also known as Burma.
"Myanmar is not perfect, it is still a bad place, but they had an election and the minority party there became the majority and now governs the legislative branch. Again, I’m not telling you that they’re New Zealand or Australia. They have a long way to go, but at least there was some movement," he added.
"On the contrary, the political situation in Cuba has deteriorated further since the time of the agreement, because the Castro government now feels emboldened," Rubio said. "They feel no need to make any changes, democratic, on the island. And it’s in our national security interest to see changes, because as long as you have a failed, repressive regime, you’re going to have tens of thousands of people fleeing Cuba and trying to get into the United States."
Rubio said he plans to continue blocking a vote to confirm Jacobson as the U.S. ambassador to Mexico "until she answers the questions we’ve asked of her."
From the campaign trail, Rubio has remotely blocked votes to confirm Jacobson in the Senate, citing concerns about her tenure as the lead U.S. diplomat for Latin American affairs.
While her work on Cuba is his primary concern, Rubio — as head of a subcommittee on Latin American affairs — also wants to know why the administration waited more than a year to formally request that Mexico extradite Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the world's most wanted drug lord, after his 2014 arrest. The senator is also pressing Jacobson to explain her work to help pro-democracy groups in Venezuela.
But so far, Rubio said, the administration has been "evasive" in addressing his concerns.
"I think we deserve to know those answers before she’s appointed to perhaps the most important diplomatic post in Latin America," he said.
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.