The GOP Flap Over Cuba Previews the 2016 Primaries
Policy + Politics

The GOP Flap Over Cuba Previews the 2016 Primaries

Voters got a preview of the 2016 primaries last weekend when two of the GOP potential hopefuls, Senators Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rand Paul (R-KY), sparred over the president’s action on Cuba.

Rubio called it one of the worst examples of statecraft he has ever seen, while Paul, joining with most Democrats, closely embraced the president’s initiative. The son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio has been all over the media blasting Obama for the move, saying at one point during a news conference last week, “The implications of this decision will extend far beyond Cuba.”

Related: Cuba by the Numbers: What You Must Know

He also asserted emotionally, “I know the Cuban regime and its true nature better than this president does or anybody in his administration does.”

That led Paul, his fellow Republican, to take him on directly through social media. Paul tweeted out last week, “Hey Marco Rubio, if the embargo doesn’t hurt Cuba, why do you want to keep it?” 

Rubio responded that Paul was off base and that the U.S. embargo against Cuba had tons of holes in it, which led Paul – who has been accused of being isolationist in the past - to retort on Facebook, “Senator Marco Rubio is acting like an isolationist who wants to retreat to our borders and perhaps build a moat. I reject this isolationism… Let’s be clear that Senator Rubio does not speak for the majority of Cuban-Americans.”

It just kept getting uglier – or a lot more interesting, depending on your point of view.

Related: As Cuba Emerges, So Does a Legacy of Betrayal and Hope

Rubio, who has long represented the old-guard Cuban exile community in Miami, pushed back hard not just against Obama’s foreign policy shift but against Paul’s freewheeling views. On ABC’s This Week on Sunday, Rubio said, “Well, first of all, if Rand wants to become the chief cheerleader of Obama’s foreign policy, he certainly has a right to do that.” He added pointedly, “I’m going to continue to oppose the Obama-Paul foreign policy on Cuba because I know it won’t lead to freedom and liberty for the Cuban people, which is my sole interest here.”

Meanwhile, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, also a potential 2016 contender, ventured into the Cuba controversy on Sunday in a letter to President Obama. Christie more cautiously expressed “profound disagreement” with the surprising reopening of diplomatic relations with the communist nation. Like Rubio and others, he expected more concessions from Cuba before the U.S. made such a dramatic move.

“I do not share your view that restoring diplomatic relations without a clear commitment from the Cuban government of the steps they will take to reverse decades of human rights violations will result in a better and more just Cuba for its people,” the N.J. governor and potential 2016 presidential contender wrote in the letter to Obama, which was dated Thursday and made public on Sunday. Christie added, though, that the move presented Cuba with “an opportunity” to show that it is serious about change.

Related: 20 American Cars That Rock Cuba

Christie’s letter diverted into an impassioned request for Cuba to return Joanna Chesimard, an American fugitive since the 1980s who was convicted of killing a N.J. state trooper in 1973. For the media, the focus remains on Rubio and Paul.

Other potential contenders for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 have also expressed opposition to Obama’s move, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

The reason all of this has long-term ramifications is both simple and complex: Many Senate Republicans are already pledging to stop or blunt the impact of a renewal of relations with Cuba. Both Rubio and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as Sen. Ted Cruz, have said they will hold up funds for a planned embassy and work to prevent Obama’s future nominee for ambassador to Cuba from gaining the nomination.

Rubio certainly has his supporters. “Three cheers for Marco Rubio’s courageous stand on Cuba,” said Craig Shirley, a Ronald Reagan biographer and conservative strategist. “Rubio has a chance to make this his signature issue. This is about opposing Obama, opposing communism, opposing Castro. It’s about patriotism, human rights, and national defense all rolled into one.”


The rift between Rubio and Paul highlights another unilateral move by President Obama that could set a precedent for other “bad actor” states. Does Obama have a longer list? Is Iran on that list? Importantly, does this portend another year or two of gridlock in Washington?

To Shirley, Rand Paul on the other hand has “ironically” come down on the wrong side. “He was so desperate to prove he wasn’t an isolationist that he jumped in on the wrong side, probably due to some very bad staff work,” said Shirley, adding that Rand Paul’s attack on Rubio was “a cheap shot.”

Others completely disagree. “The soft non-interventionist Sen. Rand Paul is to be commended for coming out in favor of lifting the embargo,” said Dan Phillips, a conservative writer and physician, in Intellectual Conservative. “While Rand Paul is not where his father is ... this issue does demonstrate that Rand Paul is at least quantifiably different from the reflexive hawks in his party, despite his history of disappointing many of us non-interventionists.” 

Looking ahead to the 2016 race, Rubio said on Sunday that he’s considering a White House run. But he also said that if Jeb Bush got into the race, the former Florida governor would have his full support. “I have tremendous respect for Jeb Bush,” said Rubio on NBC’s Meet the Press. “I think if he runs, he will be a very credible and strong candidate.”

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