NEW YORK — Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio vowed Friday to roll back the Obama administration's new Cuba policy on his first day in office, casting the plan to normalize relations with the island nation as a dangerous shift that gives the Castro regime international legitimacy and more resources to repress its people.
In a blistering speech Friday to the conservative-leaning Foreign Policy Initiative in New York, delivered the same day Secretary of State John Kerry re-opened the U.S. embassy in Havana, the Florida senator charged that President Barack Obama's diplomacy — on Cuba and the recent Iran nuclear deal — provides evidence of "every flawed strategic, moral and economic notion" that has driven the Democratic president's foreign policy.
"He has been quick to deal with the oppressors, but slow to deal with the oppressed," Rubio said. "And his excuses are paper-thin."
The Cuban-American lawmaker has made foreign policy a centerpiece of his campaign for president and a focus in his first five years in Congress, where he has served as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Rubio said he would return Cuba to the list of state sponsors of terrorism and require the Castro regime to "carry out meaningful political and human rights reforms" or lose its new diplomatic and economic benefits with the United States.
The Obama administration has said it is normalizing ties with Cuba after more than 50 years of hostility failed to shake the communist government's hold on power. It argues that dealing directly with Cuba over issues including human rights and trade is far likelier to produce democratic and free-market reforms over the long term.
While the issue is one of personal importance to Rubio, whose parents emigrated from Cuba in the 1950s, it doesn't top the list of foreign policy issues that matter to Americans.
A poll released Friday by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that only 1 in 3 Americans said it was important to hear from the next president about their approach to Cuba, compared with nearly 9 of 10 who wanted to hear about terrorism and cyberattacks by foreign countries or terrorist groups.
Roughly three-quarters of Americans said it was important to hear from the next president about Iran. In his speech, Rubio vowed to re-impose the economic sanctions the United States and other world powers agreed to lift in exchange for curbs on Tehran's nuclear program.
"I will give the mullahs a choice: either you have an economy or you have a nuclear program, but you cannot have both," he said.
Any talks to come afterward must result in a deal that terminates Iran's nuclear program, he said, and would also be tied to "Iran's broader conduct, from human rights abuses to support for terrorism and threats against Israel."
Rubio said Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton was a partner in Obama's failed policies in Iran and Cuba. "She not only supports these two deals, she now brags about her instrumental role in bringing them to fruition," he said in a speech that mentioned Clinton by name three times and Obama 13.
"Hillary Clinton will not overturn these deals as president," he said. "I will."
Opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, brokered by the United States, Britain China, France, Germany and Russia, is universal among the Republican candidates for president. Congress will vote on the agreement in about a month.