Marco Rubio's cold war
By Mary Jordan January 24 at 1:20 PM
Marco Rubio had been in Washington just five months when Jonathan
Farrar, a career Foreign Service officer, stepped into a Capitol Hill
hearing room and into the senator's crosshairs.
Farrar, as the top U.S. diplomat in Havana, had overseen some of
President Obama's first steps toward easing Washington's 50-year-old
diplomatic and economic freeze with Cuba. A giant ticker that streamed
news and political statements that irritated Cuba's communist government
was dismantled at the U.S. compound in Havana. Offending Christmas
decorations were taken down, too.
At the 2011 hearing, Farrar told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee
that Cold War-era policies had failed and that it was time to "come up
with new programs" for dealing with the island of 11 million.
Rubio just shook his head. He described the long-standing policy toward
Cuba as "adversarial" and "aggressive" and said he saw no reason to
soften it. Why should our country budge, he argued, when there was no
improvement to Cuba's human rights record?
The Florida Republican, the son of Cuban immigrants, was determined to
do more than rail against the change. He had decided to block Obama's
nominees to key diplomatic posts in Latin America, starting with Farrar,
who needed Senate confirmation to become the new U.S. ambassador to
"I have to be honest," Rubio told Farrar. "I am concerned about some of
the decisions that you made at the Interest Section in Havana."
Nicaragua, he said, "is a place headed in the wrong direction in a
hurry, and America needs a forceful presence there."
Farrar had stepped on Rubio's highly electrified third rail, and his
appointment was quickly incinerated.
Today, as the 44-year-old Rubio campaigns for the Republican
presidential nomination, he holds fast to the same hard-line view on
Cuba he offered in a quiet fourth-floor Senate hearing room five years
ago. Driven by a political philosophy shaped by his Cuban roots, he is
now holding an even more important Obama nomination hostage: the U.S.
ambassador to Mexico.
At a time when most Americans support a landmark shift in U.S. policy on
Cuba, Rubio has positioned himself as that move's biggest foe. He
champions a Cold War approach that many think is outdated and that runs
counter to his image as the youthful leader of a new generation.
"I said, 'Marco, how can you hit Hillary Clinton for being the candidate
of yesterday when you are supporting policies that date to the 1960s?' "
said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who sits on the Foreign Relations
Committee with Rubio.
But his intense focus on Cuba explains a lot about who Rubio is — and
how, as a potential commander in chief, he sees the United States' role
in the world.
A grandfather's influence
Cuba is personal for Rubio. His parents were born there, and his
grandfather — the single greatest influence on his political thinking —
despised what Fidel Castro did to his homeland. In his memoir, Rubio
wrote that as a child, "I boasted I would someday lead an army of exiles
to overthrow Fidel Castro and become president of a free Cuba."
He would sit at the feet of his grandfather, a Ronald Reagan-loving,
cigar-smoking shoemaker named Pedro Victor Garcia, and listen to him
describe how communism destroyed lives in Cuba and how the United States
had a unique role to play in the world as the enforcer of freedom.
Papá, as he called him, spoke to Rubio with reverence for Reagan's
strength and reach, including his controversial funding of the contra
rebels fighting the leftist government in Nicaragua. In the fifth grade,
Rubio wrote a paper praising Reagan for restoring the U.S. military. His
grandfather kept it in old red suitcase, a little treasure the senator
found a few years ago.
"He was a huge influence on me," Rubio said in a phone interview with
The Washington Post while campaigning in New Hampshire. "He felt that
more countries would become like Cuba if America wasn't the strongest
country in the world. So that was instilled in me from an early age."
Today, Rubio often echoes his grandfather when he talks about his
support for the use of U.S. military might and his belief in "American
Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), who also serves on the Foreign Relations
Committee, said Rubio believes it is crucial that other countries "know
how tough you are and how willing you are to use [force]. And if either
of those are gone, you got a problem."
Risch said that Rubio is a leader in the Senate on foreign affairs and
that his knowledge and interest in the world stems from growing up in
Miami, where what is happening in Latin America is considered local news.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who is also Cuban American and shares
Rubio's hard line on Cuba, said everyone is informed by the people who
surround them. In Rubio's case, it is not just that Rubio comes from a
state with more than 1 million people of Cuban descent but also that
many of those he talks to "fled modern-day oppression."
In West Miami, where Rubio first got elected as a city commissioner at
the age of 26 — and where he still lives — he is surrounded by Cuban
immigrants and their children. They were the donors and supporters who
helped put him in the statehouse and who piled into a chartered flight
to Tallahassee to witness him becoming the first Cuban American elected
as speaker of the House in Florida. Last year, in a symbolic gesture,
Rubio announced his run for president in front of Miami's Freedom Tower,
where the U.S. government once processed Cuban immigrants fleeing the
'An emotional blind spot'?
But in much of the country and even in Miami, attitudes about Cuba
shifted as decades of diplomatic and economic sanctions proved
ineffective. Polls show more than 70 percent of Americans support
Obama's decision to restore relations and promote other efforts to open
up the island nation.
In recent months, Airbnb, a seven-year-old U.S. website that allows
people to find and rent lodging, has signed up hundreds of Cubans eager
to rent rooms in their homes to the new flood of American visitors.
Even most Cuban Americans support normalization of relations with Cuba —
and 77 percent of those younger than 50 support Obama's policy,
according to Miami pollster Fernand Armandi. He said those who remain
opposed are a shrinking group: older, Florida-based Republicans born in
And Marco Rubio.
Nothing gets Rubio going like Cuba. Foreign policy should not be crafted
by looking at polls, he declared. "I am going to do what's right, not
what's popular," he said in the Post interview.
He is not against change, he stressed, bristling at criticism that he is
the young guy stuck in the past. It's that Obama cut a bad deal. Cuba
remains a dictatorship and all the United States got, Rubio said, is the
"hope that a flood of American tourists will one day lead to a
democratic opening, which I know it will not because it never has
anywhere in the world — and it will not now."
When Secretary of State John F. Kerry raised the flag on the U.S.
Embassy in Havana in August for the first time in 54 years and called it
a "historic moment" on the evening news, Rubio took to the airwaves himself.
Obama, he told reporters, was rewarding oppression and bestowing
"international legitimacy" on a nation that continues to jail
dissidents. Sanctions should be re-imposed, Rubio said, and the embassy
shut until there is improvement on human rights.
In his interview with The Post, he also noted that Cuba still harbors
fugitives from U.S. justice and "plays host to spy stations" from China
Some wonder whether Rubio decided to stick with being the lead voice in
the Senate critical of the new Cuba policy rather than risk being called
inconsistent, especially after being slammed for helping craft an
immigration-reform bill and then retreating from it. But many believe he
doesn't want to turn his back on the donors and supporters who launched
his political career.
"Maybe it's just an emotional blind spot for him," Armandi said.
His friends say he just believes it.
'Roulette with your career'
There has been no U.S. envoy in Mexico City since August because Rubio
is holding up the nomination of Assistant Secretary of State Roberta
Jacobson, who led negotiations with Cuba as the United States moved
toward more engagement.
"He is trying to stick a finger in the eye of the president" over Cuba
by blocking her, said Flake, the Arizona Republican.
Flake thinks it's a mistake. So do 19 Latino members of Congress who
signed a letter to Rubio protesting his hold on her nomination. They
argue it has nothing to do with her qualifications and is a slight to
Mexico, a key ally and trading partner.
Rubio critics say issues come up every day — including the possible
extradition of recently recaptured drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán —
that underscore the price of an empty chair in Mexico City. They note
that Pope Francis helped broker the new Cuba policy. And they complain
that Rubio has a poor record of attending Senate hearings while he is
stonewalling Jacobson and running for president.
"While I understand Senator Rubio has his own ambitions to serve," he
should let the Senate vote and get an ambassador in Mexico, said Rep.
Linda Sanchez of California, one of the Democrats who signed the
Rubio said he will delay Jacobson's nomination until he gets answers to
his questions about several troubling issues, including "what role she
played in some of these new arrangements with Cuba."
So she remains in Washington as an assistant secretary of state. Farrar,
who couldn't pass muster with Rubio to be tough enough on the
left-leaning government in Nicaragua, ended up becoming the U.S.
ambassador to Panama.
At the State Department, Foreign Service officers with ambitions to land
a post that needs Senate confirmation have hesitated or avoided work on
Cuba because they know it can draw fire from Rubio.
"If you did, you were playing roulette with your career," said Carl
Meacham, who worked for then-Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) on the
Foreign Relations Committee. "For Rubio, Cuba was a litmus test. It was
either thumbs up or thumbs down."
'A free Cuba'
Asked how he makes decisions on foreign policy, Rubio talked about the
importance of prioritizing threats and spotting trouble early.
"The majority of presidential energy and detail" needs to be spent on
issues that have "direct impact on both our economic security and
national security," he said. That means "big geopolitical threats" and
smaller ones that could grow.
"It's not just the ability to see what is in front of you now," he said,
"but to see what something can become."
Rubio said he saw Libya's civil war was going to create a power vacuum
and "become a magnet for jihadists," so he voiced support for a bigger
U.S. effort there.
The same was true in Syria, he said. "I argued that if we didn't find
non-jihadists and make sure they were the strongest group on the ground,
jihadists would be the strongest group."
Rubio promises that if elected president he will rebuild the military.
He tells crowds that Obama has been too weak, too willing to negotiate
with dictators, "from Cuba to Iran."
The world "is a very different place" than when he listened to his
grandfather as a kid, he said in the interview. But just as in the Cold
War, and in World War I and II, he said, the United States remains "the
only nation on Earth" capable of taking the lead against global threats
and building coalitions to fight them.
"Force should always be the last resort," Rubio said. "But sometimes
it's the only resort."
Elliott Abrams, an adviser to President Reagan who gained notoriety for
his role in the funding of the contras in Nicaragua, has spoken with
Rubio about foreign affairs. "He is clearly an internationalist," Abrams
said. "He is more willing to use American power than, let's say, [Ted]
Abrams said Rubio is particularly interested in defending human rights,
from Venezuela to Bahrain. "One can postulate that it comes from being a
Cuban American," Abrams said.
It was telling, he said, that Rubio brought up Cuba in the final
question during the Republican debate in September at the Reagan
Presidential Library, where Reagan's retired airplane served as the
CNN moderator Jake Tapper asked each candidate, "How will the world look
different once your Air Force One is parked in the hangar of your
Rubio said he would fly to our allies — Israel, South Korea and Japan.
Then on to China and Russia, "not just to meet with our enemies" but to
meet with the people in those countries who "aspire to freedom and liberty."
"And ultimately," Rubio said, "I hope that my Air Force One, if I become
president, will one day land in a free Cuba, where its people can choose
its leaders and its own destiny."
Mary Jordan is a national correspondent for the Washington Post covering
the 2016 presidential campaign. She served as the co-bureau chief of the
Post's London, Mexico and Tokyo bureaus, and was the head of content of
Washington Post Live, which organizes forums and debates.
Source: Marco Rubio's cold war - The Washington Post -