WASHINGTON -— Sen. Marco Rubio on Wednesday blasted Secretary of State John Kerry after reports Cuban dissidents will not be a part of Friday's ceremonial re-opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
"It doesn't surprise me one bit, and I wrote him a letter two days ago asking him to meet with them. But this is par for the course with these guys. It doesn't surprise me at all. They have basically ignored the whole human rights issue. They gave it lip service. They say oh, we remain concerned. Meanwhile, this weekend, dozens of protesters were rounded up and beaten, peaceful protesters, women among them," Rubio said. "We have the photos to prove it. Cuba is not going to change until the Cuban government changes."
The Florida Republican senator and presidential candidate made his comments during a lengthy interview Wednesday on Hugh Hewitt's radio show.
In an interview with Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo, Kerry said that he did intend to meet with dissidents away from the flag-raising ceremony.
"They will be invited to our mission. They will come to the mission. I will have a chance to sit down with them at the mission. There will be a broad cross-section of Cuban society that will be invited to that event at the mission. What they are not invited to, quite openly, is the raising of the flag at the embassy itself, because that is a government-to-government moment, with very limited space by the way, which is why we are having the reception later in the day, in which we can have a cross-section of civil society, including some dissidents," Kerry said. "Furthermore, I will take an open, free walk in Old Habana at some point of the day."
Rubio was pointing to a letter he had sent earlier in the week to Kerry calling for the secretary of state to meet with opposition to the Castro regime and to press for action on human rights.
"When you visit Cuba this week, the Obama Administration will be sending its most chilling signal yet; that it views diplomatic relations with the Castro regime to be more important than the interests of the American people, or the basic human rights of the Cuban people," Rubio wrote. "As I have said before, I will make sure that the embassy you are opening in Havana will not have a U.S. ambassador unless, at the very least, we see real political reforms and progress on human rights, the return to the U.S. of harbored terrorists and fugitives to face justice, and the resolution of outstanding American property claims and judgments against the Cuban government."
Getting an ambassador fully in place would require Senate confirmation, which might be a tall order in a chamber controlled by Republicans.
"I urge you to at least use the opportunity of your upcoming August 14th trip to Havana to demand the freedom and rights of the Cuban people. During your meetings with Cuban officials, you should demand that all political prisoners are released. During your visit, you should meet with the courageous leaders who are fighting to bring freedom to Cuba and invite them to the ceremony you will be presiding over at the new American embassy," Rubio wrote in his latest letter.
But Kerry said it was an important step for Cuban officials to allow U.S. personnel to meet openly with dissidents in Havana.
"The United States, I can assure you, in this effort, after 54 years of seeing zero progress, one of the things we negotiated is the ability of our diplomats to be able to meet with people in Cuba, and not to be restrained," he said in the Telemundo interview. "And I believe the people of Cuba benefit on virtue by that presence and that ability."
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