Rand Paul Is More Right About Cuba Than Marco Rubio


Not having it. |||

The Republican response to President Barack Obama's historic opening toward Cuba this week has generally been awful and dispiriting to behold. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), for example, was the politician most single-handedly responsible for the United States re-establishing diplomatic relations with still-communist Vietnam two decades ago, saying at the time:

But that's totally different, because of something something WALNUTS! |||

Instead of vainly trying to isolate Vietnam, the United States should test the proposition that greater exposure to Americans will render Vietnam more susceptible to the influence of our values. Vietnam's human rights record needs substantial improvement. We should make good use of better relations with the Vietnamese to help advance in that country a decent respect for the rights of man.

What does McMaverick say now, with his co-conspirator Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)?

It is about the appeasement of autocratic dictators, thugs, and adversaries, diminishing America's influence in the world. 

The gap in both the writing and sentiment in those two passages speaks volumes about how far GOP foreign-policy thinking has degenerated over time. (It also speaks to McCain's own 100% malleability on key issues—back in 2000 he said "I'm not in favor of sticking my finger in the eye of Fidel Castro. In fact, I would favor a road map towards normalization of relations such as we presented to the Vietnamese and led to a normalization of relations between our two countries.")

The faces of appeasement? Really? |||

Two senatorial exceptions to that rule have been Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has long advocated lifting the U.S. embargo, telling Reason TV in 2011 that "If someone's going to limit my travel, it should be a communist, not my own government"; and also Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who came out in qualified support of Obama's actions yesterday. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who unlike most of his GOP colleagues actually has deep knowledge about the subject, shot back at Paul, saying "he has no idea what he's talking about." Paul has now fired back on Twitter and with a Time op-ed. Here's more from Rubio's argument:

[W]hat the president is saying, by recognizing Cuba's government is that in the 21st century being a Communist, brutal dictatorship is an acceptable form of government.

As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee really should know by now, diplomatic recognition confers no such acceptance. The United States has long recognized communist Laos (recognition since 1950, commie since '75*), China (1979), and Vietnam (1995). Among the brutal dictatorships that contain U.S. embassies are Burma (relations established in 1948), Uganda (1962), Equatorial Guinea (1968), Zimbabwe (1980), Turkmenistan (1991), Uzbekistan (1991), and Eritrea (1993). When Marco Rubio was a teenager, most of the world by population was not free. Would he have had his sainted Ronald Reagan rip up diplomatic relations with scores of countries, beginning with the Evil Empire itself? That is not how U.S. diplomacy has ever worked.

Again, Rubio is actually better on Cuba than most Republicans on Capitol Hill, and in his passionate press conference Wednesday he threw some accurate cold water on the moment, reminding people that the Cuban government could re-jail its 53 released political prisoners overnight (remember: there was a similar release associated with the 1998 visit to the island by the Pope, which was followed five years later by a brutal crackdown against dissidents and civil society). Obama's announcement that Cuba's sponsor-of-terror designation would now be up for review was a cynical reminder that such labels are almost purely political and expedient. Giddy predictions of Cuba's imminent collapse will likely prove bollocks. And I can always respect a man whose righteous indignation at human rights abuses extends to both Havana and Riyadh.

But Rubio and the GOP are wrong, and wildly so, about a number of their Obama-Cuba critiques. This move was not "appeasement"; increased American travel and remittances do not "only" serve "to benefit the regime," and this does not mark a retreat from fighting for the freedom of Cubans.

Start with that most debased of GOP foreign policy insults, appeasement. Here's Rubio:

Today's announcement…is just the latest in a long line of failed attempts by President Obama to appease rogue regimes at all cost.

You can find more A-word arguments from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Sen.-elect Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Florida), Rep. Ileana Ros-Lethinen (R-Florida), Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.), Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kansas), Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, John Bolton,  Charles Krauthammer, Jennifer Rubin, Linda Chavez, Rush Limbaugh, National Review, and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, for starters.

But how, precisely, is this appeasement? The U.S. got one of its longtime intelligence operatives, plus an innocent-seeming human rights activist, out of Cuban prisons in exchange for three genuinely awful Cuban spies whose work was linked to the death of Americans. Now, that two-for-three swap is certainly unequal, and may indeed (as Rubio worries) incentivize bad actors to take innocent Americans hostage in the future, but as Israel for one can certainly testify, sometimes countries that genuinely value their own citizens' lives accept numerically and morally disproportionate prisoner exchanges. Frustrating, yes, but not definitionally appeasement. Should Reagan have left Nick Daniloff rot in Soviet prison just because he, too, was most likely a hostage?

The more common argument for the A-word in this case is that allowing for more American travel and remittances to the island will somehow strengthen the Castro brothers' hand. Here's Rubio:

This administration's attempts to loosen restrictions on travel in recent years have only served to benefit the regime. 


Now, thanks to President Obama's concessions, the regime in Cuba won't have to change.

The entire policy shift is based on the illusion—in fact, on the lie—that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people. Cuba already enjoys access to commerce, money and goods from other nations, and yet the Cuban people are still not free. They are not free because the regime—just as it does with every aspect of life—manipulates and controls to its own advantage all currency that flows into the island. More economic engagement with the U.S. means that the regime's grip on power will be strengthened for decades to come—dashing the Cuban people's hopes for freedom and democracy.

Rubio, to my knowledge, has never visited Cuba outside of the U.S.-controlled Guantanamo Bay facility. My 1998 experience of attempting to live in Havana convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that three of the most important and attainable things Cubans need, both for their basic human dignity and for their struggle against their totalitarian overlords, are 1) exposure to Americans; 2) increased access to non-governmental sources of money, and 3) increased access to information. Obama's moves help on all three fronts. Here's how I explained/described this line of thinking in a 2002 Reason piece:

Havana is famously seething with Cubans trying to pump dollars from tourists. Walk through the central city as a blond man in a white T-shirt, and you'll spend your days hearing the hissing "kss-kss!" sound of people trying to grab your attention. It isn't all about money scams, cheap cigars, and prostitutes. Just as often—maybe more often—the approaching strangers and instant friends just want to talk, to practice their foreign languages, to pepper you with questions about the outside world.

Who really killed Tupac? What are the lyrics to that Rage Against the Machine song, and what do they mean? How are the people doing in Budapest and Prague now? Do American girls like Cuban men? What do the people think about Bill Clinton? Why does your country keep insisting on the bloqueo? How famous is Gloria Estefan? Why isn't Luis Tiant in the Hall of Fame? These are all questions I heard during my month there.

There are many things in Havana to be shocked by: the rotted buildings, the child prostitution, the high price of Cuban beer, the suffocating role of the state in virtually all human transactions. But the thing I found most appalling was the culture of information. Or, more precisely, the lack thereof.

The daily newspaper, Granma, is thin, horribly written, and used primarily for toilet paper (what with the shortages and all). The director of Cuba's sports Hall of Fame could not tell me how many members it had. It took me a week of asking dedicated baseball fans to find out how one could obtain a schedule for upcoming games. Periodical libraries—filled with glorious back issues of Havana's handsome and competitive round-the-clock newspapers from before World War II—are off-limits to most ordinary Cubans.

Even though people are generally smart and jaded enough to tune out the government's propaganda, they don't have much of anything to replace it with, except for the odd BBC broadcast—and contact with foreign tourists. Every conversation with an American about the U.S. undermines Fidel Castro by definition, because it surely contradicts the banal lies he and his media mouth on a daily basis.

Even if you don't take my commie-hatin' word for it, try to think step-by-step through the notion that more U.S. tourists and money = more power for the Castros. Rubio claims that "the regime…manipulates and controls to its own advantage all currency that flows into the island." That's just false.

If I hand a Cuban friend $100 in Havana, that Cuban now has $100 (which is four or five times the average monthly salary). Now, that friend may pay consumption taxes on things he buys with that $100 at a state-owned store, or pay taxes on the interest he earns by depositing the sum, but the bulk of the transaction goes to the individual Cuban, on terms that the Cuban governmet cannot "control." Yes, increased transfers from Americans to Cubans will no doubt increase the net receipts of the Cuban government. But it will also doubtlessly increase the share of the island's total money owned by individuals. It will, in other words, increase individual autonomy in one of the most repressed countries on earth.

In return for this net gain, the communist government puts itself in danger of losing, or at least eroding, its last remaining piece of effective propaganda: the lie that the U.S. embargo and related skullduggery is the principal source of Cuban misery.

Once upon a time, "appeasement" meant ceding the Sudetenland to an expansionist Adolf Hitler without even allowing Czechs a seat at the negotiating table. Now it somehow means a two-for-three prisoner swap, a slight easing on unconscionable restrictions against Americans, promises of 53 political prisoners being freed, the same diplomatic engagement the U.S. has had with Venezuela since 1835, and a net increase in individual Cuban latitude? Republicans not named Paul or Flake (or Amash) may want to start rethinking their hyperbole. Sadly, there's little reason to believe that they will.

* Clarified from original.


NEXT: Rand Challenges Rubio's 'Isolationist' Stance on Cuba

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  1. Laos (1950)

    Laos was not a communist country in 1950.

    Also you forgot the big one: the USSR (1933). The gulags continued an the purges and the Cold War followed afterward.

    1. I remember when it was the Democrats and liberals blasting Reagan for wanting “constructive engagement” with apartheid South Africa.

      Kinda seems like a lot of Republicans today are calling Reagan racist.

  2. Selfishly? I just want to vacation in Havana before I die.

    But – what you said, Matt.

    1. I hear the nude beaches are something to behold.

      1. Go on…

  3. * Clarified from original.

    Great research skills Matt. Did you not remember anything from ‘Nam?

    1. It wasn’t technically inaccurate in the original, but since it could lead to misconception, I sacrificed the snappier formulation. So thank you all.

    2. Did you not remember anything from ‘Nam?

      “Never engage in a land war in Asia?”

      1. All one has to do is play Risk to figure that out.

      2. Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line.

  4. The Vietnamese still have the photos of McCain being sodomized at the Hanoi Hilton, which explains why he’s still in the bag for them now.

    increased American travel and remittances do not “only” serve “to benefit the regime,” and this does not mark a retreat from fighting for the freedom of Cubans.

    How does starving and impoverishing a populace make them more free? Are they freed from the fear of drowning so that they’ll risk 90 miles of water to get to America?

    If embargo-as-a-tool-of-freedom actually held true, North Korea would be the freest place on Earth.

    1. I have been to the Hanoi Hilton, and while I remember the McCain exhibit I can’t remember sodomy pictures ….

  5. Policies not working never stopped the Republicans (or the Democrats) from continuing them before. See the War on Drugs.

  6. recognizing Cuba’s government is that in the 21st century being a Communist, brutal dictatorship is an acceptable form of government

    And here I thought it was just accepting reality.

    1. If a government has to be “acceptable” before we recognize it, how many does that leave…?

      1. Now we can’t recognize ourselves.

        Well, that’s a fine mess he’s gotten us into…

        1. Wait, he may be onto something here…

  7. I actually think an economically engaged Cuba could be way more malleable than, say, China. China is such a big powerhouse that trying to shift their policy with threats against that trade would be rightly shrugged off since it would cause a MASSIVE amount of pain to the US. On the other hand, countries like Vietnam have to compete with other smaller countries. Plenty of other countries (including China) could pick up the slack if necessary.

    Now that Vietnam is enjoying great economic growth at the hands of the West, it is easier to threaten them with sanctions (targeted) to make human rights changes. The same could be true for Cuba.

    1. Right. A better negotiating result would have been nice, but I didn’t expect much from our President. If some other President wants to extract concessions, shutting off a larger flow of funds seems like a bigger stick than the carrot of opening an embassy.

  8. “Rand Paul Is More Right About X Than Marco Rubio” where X = Anything will always be true.

  9. Rubio does have a point. It might have been a better move after regime change. I don’t have a fundamental issue with the move but the realpolitik genie tells me that waiting could have been the better play.

    1. It might have been a better move after regime change.

      Uh okay?

      1. We’ve been waiting for decades, but hey, it’s not like WE are the ones suffering in Havana, so what’s a few more decades, amirite?

  10. At the end of the day I see this as two separate issues:

    1) Diplomatic relations … makes sense
    2) Ending embargo … let Congress take a vote and their constituents let them know if they screwed up (snicker)

    1. Well, most of the existing embargo was Presidential policy from the start. The travel ban is part of Helms-Burton, though, which is why it’s not being touched.

    2. Yes, as the President is no true legal guru or at least a usurper at best. The Senate should decide as it is their job to do so, not the House or the President. We pay these thieves and actors to do the job…time to earn their paychecks.

  11. Even if you accept the proposition that re-establishing ties with Cuba is a good idea, wouldn’t it have been better to insist on a quid pro quo of some sort? From what I can see, this was yet another example Obama giving away the candy store before the other side even opens the bidding. Whether or not it is the right thing to do, insisting on nothing tangible in return is just a typical Obama fuck-up.

    1. Sure, nothing wrong with criticizing his negotiating skills. We can see if a future President can do a better job. Cuba will be far more dependent on US money than the US will be on Cuba if trade opens up.

  12. So, why is Rand Paul in the title of the article if not a single word from him is contained therein?

    1. Because God forbid any Reason article could place the praise where it belongs, when it belongs to President Obama. That’s just not allowed…everything is viewed through the prism of Libertarians, and therefore Rand Paul…even though he has had nothing to do with finally changing policy toward Cuba.

    2. You guys must have read a different article than the one that appears above.

      1. Yeah, it’s not hard for those capable of reading English to find, including the link:
        “and also Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who came out in qualified support of Obama’s actions yesterday.”
        Dunno about Zunalter, but Jack is only interested in licking Obo ass, and his reading abilities have never been worth beans.

  13. Well I would like to apppeal to those who truly serve America and have seen man’s inhumanity to man. Allowing Cuban leaders a pass while they execute, jail and worse yet torture dissenters-well, I guess if you reward those animals in Ferguson and allow losers to march the streets for a criminal defying the law regardless that the officer himself was a thug, this too will pass a public either too complacent about their nation or too treasonous to care that the right to march was paid for by those of us who obey the law, make no excuses for personal poor choices, and defy the likes of Castro and any man who would reduce his people to slavery while rolling in the hay with Cuban whores while in those cells and those fields are those this writer needs to interview or at least give a voice to.

    Who speaks for the dead in Cuba-apparently life today has little value in Cuba or in America.

    1. “Allowing Cuban leaders a pass”

      Please define.

    2. The U.S. is apparently willing to give a pass to all kinds of unsavory regimes. Why single out Cuba?

    3. I’m guessing you own nothing made in China.

  14. That dude is corrput as the day is long.

  15. Matt, its laughable to me how many articles at Reason have been written about this new policy toward Cuba, and you would think its all about Rand Paul…you, Robby, everyone.

    Let me clue you in…he has had absolutely nothing to do with it. Its all about President Obama doing something every President for the past 5 decades has been fearful about changing.

    Get over it…President Obama did it.

    1. Judging by this comment and the one you posted above, you didn’t read past the title, did you?

      1. I read it…you didn’t understand it though. The President gets a passing reference, and the rest of the article is about Rand Paul and his argument with Rubio.

        Just like every other article here…go check it out…the Cuba policy is all about Rand Paul.

        But go ahead, I’ll let you say it, since no one here can bring themselves to say it…”President Obama deserves praise (kudos) for ending a stupid policy toward Cuba, because he had the courage to do something no other President has had for the past 50 years.”

        Go ahead…don’t gag when typing it.

        1. I understood it just fine, thank you. The point of the article wasn’t to dish out praise for reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, but to compare the reactions of two U.S. senators from the same party and explain why one is better, from a libertarian perspective, than the other.

    2. Obama killing the Kennedy doctrine. Progressives don’t like liberals.

    3. Hey Jackoff Ace. Libertarians have been talking about lifting the Cuban Embargo way before the election of President Obama. Maybe Obamabots like you should be giving Libertarians some credit.

    4. Jackand Ace|12.19.14 @ 9:07PM|#
      …”Let me clue you in..”

      A laugh riot, right there! YOU could “clue in” ANYONE?!
      You’ve obviously read nearly nothing of what’s been posted here; given that you’re a lefty ignoramus, that’s not surprising. But your hubris at supposing you had anything to offer is insulting.
      Fuck off, asshole.

  16. This is Reason, and the article did a good job of outlining the superficial arguments for and against the embargo, but they have nothing to do with the political reality of why the embargo is in place.

    Appeasement of the critical Cuban-American voting bloc in the swing state of Florida is the only reason for the continuing the embargo. Democrats and Republicans alike have been afraid to take an honest stand on this issue for fear of losing their support.

    Obama was able to take the step of establishing political ties because he does not have to worry about being re-elected. Ending the embargo will require votes by people that do have to worry about re-election.

    I understand that politicians are unwilling discuss this, but I don’t understand why Reason failed to mention the elephant in the room.

    1. I yield to no one in my disdain for that lying bastard in the WH, but since Castro took power, there have been 11 (?) presidents who also were not concerned with re-election.
      Pretty sure the elephant has really been a mouse for some time; I’ll give Obo props here, along with Rand Paul.

  17. And nobody saw this as one of Obama’s potential “Hail-Mary I Won’t Be Remembered As a Total F-Up President” ego- and politically-motivated Maneuvers?

    C’mon, guys and gals…

    and yes, 50 years of ‘our’ policy didn’t do much to empower Cuban citizens towards democracy or wealth. So, yeah, trying something else.. maybe ANYTHING Else… might be worth a try.

  18. Cuba is a hellhole. An admittedly picturesque hellhole, although the picturesque quality will probably fade on close acquaintance. If we want to change things there for the better, we should invade; the only time in the island’s history that it was decently governed was the second American occupation, where the Marines were running things, from 1906-1909 (the first occupation was as bad as every other government to date).

    Since making the lives of the Cubans better is none of our business, we should trade with them. The State run Cigar industry will at least partially collapse under the strain of adding the American market, and the tourist industry will allow people heretofore snowed by the Liberal Establishment to see how bad things really are.

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    1. …”I just really need to know why Tony is just so much worse then John?”

      Just keep reading them both. If you can’t tell, nothing anyone says is going to help you.

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