Marco Rubio had been in Washington just five months when Jonathan Farrar, a career Foreign Service officer, stepped into a Capitol Hill hearing room and into the senator’s crosshairs.
Farrar, as the top U.S. diplomat in Havana, had overseen some of President Barack Obama’s first steps toward easing Washington’s 50-year-old diplomatic and economic freeze with Cuba. A giant ticker that streamed news and political statements that irritated Cuba’s communist government was dismantled at the U.S. compound in Havana. Offending Christmas decorations were taken down, too.
At the 2011 hearing, Farrar told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that Cold War-era policies had failed and that it was time to “come up with new programs” for dealing with the island of 11 million.
Rubio just shook his head. He described the long-standing policy toward Cuba as “adversarial” and “aggressive” and said he saw no reason to soften it. Why should our country budge, he argued, when there was no improvement to Cuba’s human rights record?
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The Florida Republican, the son of Cuban immigrants, was determined to do more than rail against the change. He had decided to block Obama’s nominees to key diplomatic posts in Latin America, starting with Farrar, who needed Senate confirmation to become the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua.
“I have to be honest,” Rubio told Farrar. “I am concerned about some of the decisions that you made at the Interest Section in Havana.” Nicaragua, he said, “is a place headed in the wrong direction in a hurry, and America needs a forceful presence there.”
Farrar had stepped on Rubio’s highly electrified third rail, and his appointment was incinerated.
Today, as the 44-year-old Rubio campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination, he holds fast to the same hard-line view on Cuba he offered in a quiet fourth-floor Senate hearing room five years ago. Driven by a political philosophy shaped by his Cuban roots, he has held an even more important Obama nomination hostage: the U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
At a time when most Americans support a landmark shift in U.S. policy on Cuba, Rubio has positioned himself as that move’s biggest foe. He champions a Cold War approach that many think is outdated, even as it runs counter to his image as the youthful leader of a new generation.
“I said, ‘Marco, how can you hit Hillary Clinton for being the candidate of yesterday when you are supporting policies that date to the 1960s?’ “ said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee with Rubio.
But his intense focus on Cuba explains a lot about who Rubio is – and how, as a potential commander in chief, he sees the United States’ role in the world.
‘How tough you are’
Cuba is personal for Rubio. His parents were born there, and his grandfather — the greatest influence on his political thinking — despised what Fidel Castro did to his homeland. In his memoir, Rubio wrote that as a child, “I boasted I would someday lead an army of exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro and become president of a free Cuba.”
He would sit at the feet of his grandfather, a Ronald Reagan-loving, cigar-smoking shoemaker named Pedro Victor Garcia, and listen to him describe how communism destroyed lives in Cuba and how the United States had a unique role to play as the enforcer of freedom.
Papá, as he called him, spoke to Rubio with reverence for Reagan’s strength and reach, including his controversial funding of the contra rebels fighting the leftist government in Nicaragua. In fifth grade, Rubio wrote a paper praising Reagan for restoring the U.S. military. His grandfather kept it in an old red suitcase, a little treasure the senator found a few years ago.
“He was a huge influence on me,” Rubio said in a phone interview. “He felt that more countries would become like Cuba if America wasn’t the strongest country in the world. So that was instilled in me from an early age.”
Today, Rubio often echoes his grandfather when he talks about his support for the use of U.S. military might and his belief in “American exceptionalism.”
Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, who also serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Rubio believes it is crucial that other countries “know how tough you are and how willing you are to use (force). And if either of those are gone, you got a problem.”
Risch said that Rubio is a leader in the Senate on foreign affairs and that his knowledge and interest in the world stems from growing up in Miami, where what is happening in Latin America is considered local news.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who is also Cuban American and shares Rubio’s hard line on Cuba, said everyone is informed by the people around them. In Rubio’s case, it is not just that Rubio comes from a state with more than 1 million people of Cuban descent but also that many of those he talks to “fled modern-day oppression.”
In West Miami, where Rubio first won office as a city commissioner at age 26 — and where he still lives — he is surrounded by Cuban immigrants and their children. They were the donors and supporters who helped put him in the statehouse and who piled into a chartered flight to Tallahassee to see him become the first Cuban American elected as speaker of the House in Florida. Last year, in a symbolic gesture, Rubio announced his run for president in front of Miami’s Freedom Tower, where the U.S. government once processed Cuban immigrants fleeing the Castro regime.
An emotional blind spot?
But in much of the country and even in Miami, attitudes about Cuba shifted as decades of diplomatic and economic sanctions proved ineffective. Polls show more than 70 percent of Americans support Obama’s decision to restore relations and promote other efforts to open up the island nation.
In recent months, Airbnb, a seven-year-old U.S. website that allows people to find and rent lodging, has signed up hundreds of Cubans eager to rent rooms in their homes to American visitors.
Even most Cuban Americans support normalization of relations with Cuba — and 77 percent of those younger than 50 support Obama’s policy, according to Miami pollster Fernand Armandi. He said those who remain opposed are a shrinking group: older, Florida-based Republicans born in Cuba.
And Marco Rubio.
Nothing gets Rubio going like Cuba. Foreign policy should not be crafted by looking at polls, he declared. “I am going to do what’s right, not what’s popular,” he said in the Post interview.
He is not against change, he stressed, bristling at criticism that he is the young guy stuck in the past. It’s that Obama cut a bad deal. Cuba remains a dictatorship and all the United States got, Rubio said, is the “hope that a flood of American tourists will one day lead to a democratic opening, which I know it will not because it never has anywhere in the world — and it will not now.”
When Secretary of State John Kerry raised the flag on the U.S. Embassy in Havana in August for the first time in 54 years and called it a “historic moment” on the evening news, Rubio took to the airwaves himself.
Obama, he told reporters, was rewarding oppression and bestowing “international legitimacy” on a nation that continues to jail dissidents. Sanctions should be re-imposed, Rubio said, and the embassy shut until there is improvement on human rights.
In his interview with The Washington Post, he also noted that Cuba still harbors fugitives from U.S. justice and “plays host to spy stations” from China and Russia.
Some wonder whether Rubio decided to stick with being the lead voice in the Senate critical of the new Cuba policy rather than risk being called inconsistent, especially after being slammed for helping craft an immigration-reform bill and then retreating from it. But many believe he doesn’t want to turn his back on the donors and supporters who launched his political career.
“Maybe it’s just an emotional blind spot for him,” Armandi said.
His friends say he just believes it.
‘Cuba was a litmus test’
There has been no U.S. envoy in Mexico City since August because Rubio has held up the nomination of Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, who led negotiations with Cuba as the United States moved toward more engagement.
“He is trying to stick a finger in the eye of the president” over Cuba by blocking her, said Flake, the Arizona Republican.
Flake thinks it’s a mistake. So do 19 Latino members of Congress who signed a letter to Rubio protesting his hold on her nomination. They argue it has nothing to do with her qualifications and is a slight to Mexico, a key ally and trading partner.
Rubio critics say issues come up every day — including the possible extradition of recently recaptured drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán — that underscore the price of an empty chair in Mexico City. They note that Pope Francis helped broker the new Cuba policy. And they complain that Rubio has a poor record of attending Senate hearings while he is stonewalling Jacobson and running for president.
“While I understand Senator Rubio has his own ambitions to serve,” he should let the Senate vote and get an ambassador in Mexico, said Rep. Linda Sanchez of California, one of the Democrats who signed the congressional letter.
Rubio said he will delay Jacobson’s nomination until he gets answers to his questions about several troubling issues, including “what role she played in some of these new arrangements with Cuba.”
So she remains in Washington as an assistant secretary of state. Farrar, who couldn’t pass muster with Rubio to be tough enough on the left-leaning government in Nicaragua, ended up becoming the U.S. ambassador to Panama.
At the State Department, Foreign Service officers with ambitions to land a post that needs Senate confirmation have hesitated or avoided work on Cuba because they know it can draw fire from Rubio.
“If you did, you were playing roulette with your career,” said Carl Meacham, who worked for then-Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., on the Foreign Relations Committee. “For Rubio, Cuba was a litmus test. It was either thumbs up or thumbs down.”
Willing to use power
Asked how he makes decisions on foreign policy, Rubio talked about the importance of prioritizing threats and spotting trouble early.
“The majority of presidential energy and detail” needs to be spent on issues that have “direct impact on both our economic security and national security,” he said. That means “big geopolitical threats” and smaller ones that could grow.
“It’s not just the ability to see what is in front of you now,” he said, “but to see what something can become.”
Rubio said he saw Libya’s civil war was going to create a power vacuum and “become a magnet for jihadists,” so he voiced support for a bigger U.S. effort there.
The same was true in Syria, he said. “I argued that if we didn’t find non-jihadists and make sure they were the strongest group on the ground, jihadists would be the strongest group.”
Rubio promises that if elected president he will rebuild the military. He tells crowds that Obama has been too weak, too willing to negotiate with dictators, “from Cuba to Iran.”
The world “is a very different place” than when he listened to his grandfather as a kid, he said in the interview. But just as in the Cold War, and in World War I and II, he said, the United States remains “the only nation on Earth” capable of taking the lead against global threats and building coalitions to fight them.
“Force should always be the last resort,” Rubio said. “But sometimes it’s the only resort.”
Elliott Abrams, an adviser to President Reagan who gained notoriety for his role in the funding of the contras in Nicaragua, has spoken with Rubio about foreign affairs. “He is clearly an internationalist,” Abrams said. “He is more willing to use American power than, let’s say, (Ted) Cruz.”
Abrams said Rubio is particularly interested in defending human rights, from Venezuela to Bahrain. “One can postulate that it comes from being a Cuban American,” Abrams said.
It was telling, he said, that Rubio brought up Cuba in the final question during the Republican debate in September at the Reagan Presidential Library, where Reagan’s retired airplane served as the backdrop.
CNN moderator Jake Tapper asked each candidate, “How will the world look different once your Air Force One is parked in the hangar of your presidential library?”
Rubio said he would fly to our allies — Israel, South Korea and Japan. Then on to China and Russia, “not just to meet with our enemies” but to meet with the people in those countries who “aspire to freedom and liberty.”
“And ultimately,” Rubio said, “I hope that my Air Force One, if I become president, will one day land in a free Cuba, where its people can choose its leaders and its own destiny.”