ORLANDO — As Marco Rubio campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination, he's pledging to bring generational change to Washington. Yet Rubio's policy toward Cuba hinges on reinstating a half-century-old diplomatic freeze that failed to unseat the communist government on the island where his parents were born.
The Florida senator sees no contradiction between his pledge to usher in new ideas and his call to restore an old, punitive relationship with Cuba.
"People think it's because we're being stubborn or holding on to old policies," Rubio, 44, said in an interview with the Associated Press. "I'm prepared to change strategies toward Cuba, but it has to be one that yields results."
In the traditional litany of promises candidates pledge to fulfill on "Day One" in the White House, rolling back President Barack Obama's detente with Cuba is near the top of Rubio's list. He would downgrade the newly opened American Embassy in Havana to a diplomatic interests section — the status of bilateral relations before Obama's rapprochement with Cuba — and put back in place tougher limits on U.S. government and business dealings with the island.
Still, Rubio says there are ways to move forward. He would be willing to allow U.S. companies to invest in telecommunications in Cuba in exchange for free and unfettered Internet access on the island. He can envision restoring full diplomatic relations with Havana, but only if the government there allows opposition political parties and gives them freedom to organize.
Rubio says he's also open to modifying the Cuban Adjustment Act, more commonly known as the "wet foot, dry foot" policy. For Cubans fleeing to the U.S., it grants those who reach land permanent residency after one year, while most of those caught in the waters between the two countries are sent back. Rubio won't say what he would replace it with, but he calls the policy "hard to justify" when Cuban-Americans now have more ability to travel back and forth to the island.
"When you have people who are coming and a year and a day later are traveling back to Cuba 15 times a year, 12 times, 10 times, eight times, that doesn't look like someone who is fleeing oppression," Rubio said. "And other people turn to us and say, 'What's the justification for this special status?' That's a very legitimate point."
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Rubio speaks about Cuba with practiced fluency.
It's little surprise, given that his ties to the island have been central to his political rise. In his hometown of Miami, he forged political alliances with the city's Cuban-American kingmakers and rose to be speaker of the Florida House, then U.S. senator. In a presidential race where he's gaining momentum, his family's history gives his campaign a sweeping emotional core.
The outlines of that history are by now well-known. He rarely lets an event pass without mentioning his parents' decision to leave Cuba and how they worked to give their children a better life in the U.S., his father a bartender, his mother a maid.
"For them, Cuba was a place that had painful memories, but also obviously it was their homeland and they had love for it," Rubio said.
The story of the Rubio family's arrival in the U.S. has evolved. Rubio previously referred to himself as the son of exiles, using the words of those who fled the island after Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Under questioning from journalists, Rubio later changed the timeline, saying his parents came to the U.S. in 1956, before Castro's revolution.
Rubio's father died in 2010, but his mother still lives in Miami. The senator, his Colombian-American wife, Jeanette, and four children live in a home not far from where he grew up.
The senator has never traveled to Cuba, but he said he tries to keep the country's traditions alive for his young children. Meals at the Rubio house often include croquetas and other Cuban dishes. The family's main Christmas celebration is on Dec. 24 and includes a whole pig roast, a tradition many Cubans who fled have continued in their new homeland.
Still, even in a city like Miami that pulses with Cuban culture, Rubio sees the ways his children are becoming more a part of the country they live in than the one where their elders came from.
"America is a very powerful culture with very powerful values and traditions," he said. "You can see it. You see it within one generation, certainly by two generations."
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By the time the next president enters the Oval Office, U.S. airlines could be flying regularly scheduled flights to Cuba, a result of Obama's detente with the island. American businesses are eager to invest. U.S. citizens are already making more tourist trips to the island and Cuban-Americans are free to send more money to their relatives.
Politicians are sometimes loath to make policy changes that take rights away from people. But Rubio says he has no qualms about fully rolling back the opening set in motion by Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro — Fidel's 84-year-old brother — about a year ago.
He also thinks U.S. business people tantalized by the prospect of investing in the island will change their minds after the reality of dealing with the Castro government sets in. Cuban law generally prohibits majority foreign ownership of businesses on the island, although it allows joint ventures with the government and has allowed majority ownership in a new free trade zone.
"American companies think they want to invest in Cuba," Rubio said. "They have no idea what the terms are. The terms are, they don't own anything. You can't go to Cuba and open a business and own it."
He applies a similar theory to public opinion polls finding most Americans support Obama's opening with Cuba. Most poll respondents "are just giving their opinion on an issue that they really don't pay attention to," Rubio said. "I think when you present to people the reality, those numbers begin to change."
Cuba has released some political prisoners as part of the detente and made some changes favored by businesses. Rubio sees those changes as largely cosmetic and says Obama essentially gave the Castros a financial lifeline to maintain their power and possibly entrench the current system after the brothers die.
While Rubio agrees with little Obama has done in office, he pointed to the president's diplomatic opening with Myanmar, also known as Burma, as a more effective model for dealing with authoritarian governments. After years of estrangement, the U.S. restored full diplomatic relations with Myanmar after the country's leaders made a series of sweeping economic and political changes, including a transition from military rule to a quasi-civilian government.
This month Myanmar took another step forward by electing a fully civilian government for the first time, with opposition hero Aung San Suu Kyi's party emerging victorious.
"I'm not telling you what's happened with Burma is perfect," Rubio said. "But even that opening came with some elements of democratic opening that allowed opposition groups and forces and ideas to enter the political marketplace."
"Nothing was asked of Cuba," Rubio added.
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To the White House and supporters of Obama's opening with Cuba, Rubio is living in the past. Fifty years of hostilities did nothing to push the Castros from power and Obama administration officials say there's no indication that sticking with the same policy will suddenly achieve that outcome.
Rubio knows his hard-line views on Cuba are also competing against a surge of public interest in the island. Even with continued travel restrictions, Americans are flocking to Cuba in record numbers for modern times. The island has attracted the occasional vacationing celebrity and plenty of U.S. media attention.
Rubio says he shares the curiosity with Cuba. He enjoys watching the television show Cuban Chrome, which explores how people keep decades-old American cars running even though spare parts are hard to come by under the U.S. embargo. And he wants to go to the island one day and see the cemetery where his relatives are buried and the farmlands his grandfather told him about as a boy.
"It's all very interesting," Rubio said. "My problem is when people come back and say, 'I visited Cuba and it's a wonderful place, the people are happy, the government is great.' That's what I mind."