President Barack Obama announced a new era in US relations with Cuba Wednesday morning in which diplomatic ties will be reopened, along with a US embassy in Havana, while business and travel restrictions are eased.
These changes can be accomplished by executive order—but the next president could reverse them, and only Congress can lift the embargo. The permanence and depth of Obama’s policy shift thus remains in doubt.
Even if Congress doesn’t lift the embargo, the degree of opposition on Capitol Hill will significantly affect Obama’s attempted policy shift. Senator Marco Rubio openly threatened during a press conference Wednesday that the Senate would not confirm an ambassador to Cuba, and he also promised to work against any funding for a new US embassy. Senator Lindsey Graham joined in that threat.
Rubio, who is of Cuban heritage, jumped to the front of the Republican response to the new policies and seems to be leading the charge.
His first line of attack dovetailed with traditional GOP criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy: in a statement not long after the news broke Wednesday, Rubio called the shift “just the latest in a long line of failed attempts by President Obama to appease rogue regimes at all cost.” Rubio also blasted the White House for turning its back on Cubans who face repression from the Castro regime. “The president and this administration have let the people of Cuba down,” he told reporters later.
Rubio also attempted to frame it as a populist issue, with a twist of animus towards liberal elites: “While business interests seeking to line their pockets, aided by the editorial page of The New York Times, have begun a significant campaign to paper over the facts about the regime in Havana, the reality is clear,” his statement said.
No doubt some on the left will share Rubio’s ostensible concerns about free-market exploitation of Cuba, if not for entirely different reasons. (White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest further invited this line of attack when he literally read from a Chamber of Commerce press release from the briefing room podium Wednesday afternoon.)
Rubio was joined in his vehement criticism by House Speaker John Boehner, the chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee Edward Royce and the chairman-for-now of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Menendez.