President Obama’s face-to-face meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro on Saturday angered Republican candidates vying to succeed him — and might help elevate an issue that so far hasn’t resonated widely among GOP primary voters.
Obama and Castro’s meeting lasted about an hour and focused mostly on the “practical” issues surrounding the reopening of respective embassies in both countries — including the ability of U.S. diplomats to move more freely around Cuba, according to administration officials who briefed reporters after the exchange.
A majority of Americans — and Cubans — support reestablishing diplomatic relations between the two countries and ending the decades-long economic embargo of the island nation. But Republicans controlling Congress have no plans to do so, citing Obama’s engagement with Cuba as an another example of his misguided foreign policy.
The rapidly expanding Republican presidential field also includes several candidates deeply opposed to Obama’s worldview and some — given their home state politics, family lineage or general opposition to Obama — are especially angered by his overtures to Cuba.
Presumed GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush, a longtime Miami resident, voiced his displeasure Saturday via Twitter: “Obama meets with Castro but refused to meet w/ [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu]. Why legitimize a cruel dictator of a repressive regime?”
The historic meeting in Panama came just two days before Obama’s most vocal Cuba critic, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), is set to launch his presidential campaign in Miami. The freshman senator and son of Cuban parents is seeking to cast his candidacy as an historic milestone for South Florida’s influential Cuban-American community.
He will launch his campaign on Monday evening at Miami’s iconic Freedom Tower, a white and yellow structure that once served as an Ellis Island of the South, where the U.S. government processed Cuban immigrants fleeing the regime once led by Castro’s brother, Fidel Castro.
This past week Rubio criticized Obama and Latin American leaders for inviting Castro to the Summit of the Americas: “Allowing a brutal dictator to attend undermines the future of democracy in the region,” he wrote in a National Review op-ed.
But nearly two-thirds of Americans support establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, according to a December Washington Post-ABC News poll. The survey also showed higher support for ending the trade embargo and lifting travel restrictions.
A poll of Cuban citizens released last week, commissioned by Univision, Fusion TV and The Washington Post, found that 97 percent believe that a better relationship with the United States would benefit Cuba. There was near-unanimous agreement that the economic embargo should end.
Rubio has vowed to “look at all of our options” to block funding for new diplomatic operations in Havana or to confirm a new U.S. ambassador to Cuba. Congressional Republican leaders have cited Rubio’s concerns for their own opposition to reestablishing relations and to blocking any votes to end the embargo.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who is also Cuban American and launched his presidential bid nearly two weeks ago, joined other GOP lawmakers last month in asking the administration to stop Cuba from opening a new embassy in Washington.
In a statement, Cruz said the meeting is one more step in a “disturbing trend” of the administration engaging with Cuba.
“The President said today that his unprecedented meeting with Raul Castro was a step towards the future. Unfortunately, he is leaving the Cuban people imprisoned in the past,” said Cruz, who walked out of Nelson Mandela’s funeral when Castro spoke.
“It gives them exactly what they want — legitimacy on the international stage — and effectively abandons the pro-U.S. opposition,” he said. Cruz said that the U.S. should look for ways to help the island nation but only if “we first extract significant concessions,” including legal reform, including political opposition in negotiations, and calibrating the relaxation in sanctions to improvements on the island’s human rights record.
“Obama is willing to do what nine previous presidents of both parties would not: cave to a communist dictator in our own hemisphere.”
Bush has enjoyed strong relations with his state’s Cuban American political and business community since the 1980s. In a speech last December, he reiterated his opposition to the Castro regime just days before Obama announced his new Cuba policy.
“Instead of lifting the embargo, I would argue that we should strengthen it to put pressure on the Cuban regime,” Bush said at an event held by the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC. He added that Cuba shouldn’t be able to attend the triennial Summit of the Americas unless it signs the Inter-American Democratic charter, a document signed by members of the Organization of American States reaffirming that democracy is the main form of government in the Western Hemisphere.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a longtime Obama critic who has launched a presidential exploratory committee, said Friday that “Obama’s foreign policy has been one appeasement toward autocratic dictators, thugs and adversaries,” he said in a statement Friday. “Is it any wonder that on President Obama’s watch our enemies are emboldened and our friends demoralized?”
The one outlier among major GOP candidates is Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who gave qualified support to Obama’s new policy last December.
“The 50-year embargo just hasn’t worked,” he said in a radio interview at the time. “If the goal is regime change, it sure doesn’t seem to be working.”
Aides to Paul, who began his campaign this past week, declined to comment on Obama’s meeting with Castro.
Katie Zezima contributed to this report.