Sen. Marco Rubio takes aggressive turn as face of opposition to President Obama's Cuba decision

Sen. Marco Rubio reacts to President Barack Obama's announcement about revising policies on U.S.-Cuba relations on Dec. 17, 2014, in Washington. Rubio called the president a bad negotiator and criticized what he claimed was a deal with no democratic advances for Cuba. [Getty Images]
Sen. Marco Rubio reacts to President Barack Obama's announcement about revising policies on U.S.-Cuba relations on Dec. 17, 2014, in Washington. Rubio called the president a bad negotiator and criticized what he claimed was a deal with no democratic advances for Cuba. [Getty Images]
Published Dec. 18, 2014

WASHINGTON — As President Barack Obama dropped the bombshell about Cuba on Wednesday, Sen. Marco Rubio was hurrying to the Capitol where a packed room of reporters awaited.

The Florida Republican stood outside for a moment, reviewing notes, then stepped to the podium and unloaded.

"This president is the single worst negotiator we have had in the White House in my lifetime," Rubio said, contending Obama "has basically given the Cuban government everything it asked for and received no assurances of any advances of democracy and freedom."

Rubio deemed it a victory for the "oppressive Cuban government" and "another concession to a tyranny" by the Obama administration. The president, he said, let the Cuban people down. He used words like "absurd" and "disgraceful and outrageous." He vowed to do whatever possible to block the moves.

"This Congress is not going to lift the embargo," said Rubio, who will chair the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere when Congress reconvenes in January.

For Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants who has fashioned their story into an American Dream narrative used throughout his political career, it was the most personal and aggressive moment of his time in the national spotlight. On Wednesday he became the face of opposition to Obama's landmark decision just as he nears a decision on whether to run for president in 2016.

"I'm not discussing 2016 today out of respect for the gravity and importance of this issue," Rubio told reporters, one day after former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush trumped him by saying he was actively exploring a run.

Obama's move, like his unilateral action on immigration last month, thrusts the issue into the presidential campaign and gives Rubio another platform in what has been a steady criticism of Obama's foreign policy. The senator wasted no opportunity, appearing on Fox, CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNBC and Telemundo.

He wrote an opinion piece, headlined "A victory for oppression," that appeared in today's Wall Street Journal.

It would be inconceivable for Rubio, an icon in Miami's Cuban exile community, to express anything but adamant opposition. But relations with Cuba are complex and public view has aligned with Obama, even among Cuban-Americans in Rubio's hometown, particularly the younger generation whose ties to the island are more removed.

Any presidential hopeful will have to navigate the issue carefully in swing-state Florida.

The lock Republicans once had on the Cuban vote has vanished. Obama did well among Cubans in 2008 and better in 2012, coming up just short against Mitt Romney. Add to that a growth of other Hispanic voters, who overwhelmingly backed Obama, and the politics look a lot different in Florida.

"I don't care if the polls say that 99 percent of people believe we should normalize relations in Cuba," said Rubio, 43. "I still believe that before we can normalize relations that democracy has to come first, or at least significant steps toward democracy."

He added that he doubted most people would support the deal with Cuba if they knew, as he charged, the United States got little in the form of assurance that Cuba would foster more freedom. Rubio argued that the embargo is "leverage."

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who helped secure the release of the jailed American Alan Gross, countered Rubio's view that the deal was a concession to the Cuban regime. "We are long past due," he said of normalizing relations. "Fifty years. Fifty years. Certainly the policy is right, and good politics usually follow."

Rubio made his points in a stream of television interviews that served to emphasize his views on a strong American foreign policy. He has spent the past four years in the Senate diving into debates, taking trips abroad — and criticizing Obama — in what has looked like an inevitable bid for president.

Other potential 2016 candidates were slower to react, though Bush readily joined in criticism with Rubio, calling it the "latest foreign policy misstep by this president, and another dramatic overreach of his executive authority."

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, whose father fled Cuba, echoed Rubio in making a larger case against Obama's foreign policy. But also like Rubio, Cruz refused to say that the United States should sever ties with China, another Communist country. The men said China is a world power and different than Cuba.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the prohibitive Democratic favorite for 2016, came out with a positive statement Wednesday night: "I support President Obama's decision to change course on Cuba policy, while keeping the focus on our principal objective — supporting the aspirations of the Cuban people for freedom."

During the 2008 campaign, she favored keeping the embargo in place unless there was more movement on democracy. But she flip-flopped this year, saying the embargo has not worked.

With a divide now clear and the Cuban vote trending their way, Democrats could see an advantage in 2016.

"If changes begin to accelerate in Cuba, this decision will be seen as the catalyst," said Fernand Amandi, a Florida pollster who specializes in the Cuban community. "Republicans who have doubled down on the status quo are running the risk of being on the wrong side of history."

Rubio insists he wants change.

"Let me be clear: I am in favor of normalizing relations with Cuba," Rubio said at the news conference. "But for that to happen, Cuba has to be normal. Cuba has to be a democracy."

The deal with Cuba was achieved at the urging of the Vatican. Rubio, who is Catholic, was asked about it and said he understood Pope Francis was instrumental in the release of Gross. But his answer misstated the Pope's role in broader negotiations to thaw the U.S.-Cuba relationship.

"I would ask his holiness to take up the cause of freedom and democracy," said Rubio, who celebrated Gross' release.

Gross, however, eschewed the hard line. "This is a game-changer, which I fully support," he said during a news conference in Washington. "I support the president."

Contact Alex Leary at Follow @learyreports.