The Republican split over Cuba is heating up.

A day after Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul broke with the majority of the GOP to back President Barack Obama’s shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba, he has become embroiled in a spat with fellow Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a potential rival for the GOP nomination in 2016 who opposes the thaw in relations between the two countries…

As he prepares for a possible presidential run, Mr. Paul—who has often been targeted as an isolationist—has taken great lengths to distance himself from that label and the GOP’s libertarian wing. This summer, he voted to back U.S. airstrikes against Islamic militants in Syria and Iraq as polling showed voters leaning toward a more active foreign policy—the first military action he supported since his election. Then, too, Mr. Rubio pounced, calling it “unfortunate” that lawmakers would “rather wait for poll numbers to change than to demonstrate the leadership necessary to shape them.”

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Opponents of President Obama’s diplomatic opening toward Cuba began plotting for the long road ahead to block the administration’s new policy, focusing on areas where congressional consent is necessary…

Their staffs have begun scouring pertinent laws related to determine if there are ways to impede the new financial avenues to commerce with the island nation. In particular, GOP aides are focusing on portions of the 1996 law that tightened the embargo against Cuba, whether the president’s decision to allow U.S. credit and debit cards in Cuba would violate sections of the law, commonly referred to as the Helms-Burton Act…

Just four years into his Senate tenure, Rubio is already the third-ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and expects to chair a subcommittee overseeing Western Hemisphere issues. He will be able to hold hearings and call witnesses to try to shape the issue, possibly as he mounts a campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

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Paul had attacked [Rubio] on a strength, on the issue Rubio is most comfortable talking about–and the one that leaves him most prone to vehemence and emotion. Rubio was getting all the attention on Cuba policy, and on the right he was driving the debate. In internet debate terms, Paul was trying to thread-jack him.

“Paul may know more re glaucoma and cataracts than Rubio,” wrote Miami-based Republican strategist Ana Navarro in a tweet, “but trying to debate Marco on Cuba is short-sighted. He’s playing out of his league.”

That’s what the national security hawks thought when Paul took on the Cheneys, and Chris Christie, and Rudy Giuliani. He’s comfortable shooting from the bunker.

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I support engagement, diplomacy, and trade with Cuba, China, Vietnam, and many countries with less than stellar human rights records, because I believe that once enslaved people taste freedom and see the products of capitalism they will become hungry for freedom themselves.

President George W. Bush wrote that “trade creates the habits of freedom,” and trade provides the seeds of freedom that begin “to create the expectations of democracy.” Once trade begins it is hard to hide the amazing products of capitalism. The Soviets used to produce documentaries depicting poverty in America but it backfired when Russian viewers noticed that even in the poorest of circumstances you could still see televisions flickering in the windows. Once trade is enhanced with Cuba, it will be impossible to hide the bounty that freedom provides…

Let’s overwhelm the Castro regime with iPhones, iPads, American cars, and American ingenuity…

Emotions understandably run high for those whose parents and grandparents had their land and their lives taken from them. But if our goal is to defeat Castro and defeat communism then perhaps we should step back and ask ourselves, “Has the embargo worked?” If we allow the passions to cool, maybe just maybe, we might conclude that trade is better than war and that capitalism wins every time a people get a chance to see its products.

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Rubio is actually better on Cuba than most Republicans on Capitol Hill, and in his passionate press conference Wednesday he threw some accurate cold water on the moment, reminding people that the Cuban government could re-jail its 53 released political prisoners overnight (remember: there was a similar release associated with the 1998 visit to the island by the Pope, which was followed five years later by a brutal crackdown against dissidents and civil society). Obama’s announcement that Cuba’s sponsor-of-terror designation would now be up for review was a cynical reminder that such labels are almost purely political and expedient. Giddy predictions of Cuba’s imminent collapse will likely prove bollocks. And I can always respect a man whose righteous indignation at human rights abuses extends to both Havana and Riyadh.

But Rubio and the GOP are wrong, and wildly so, about a number of their Obama-Cuba critiques. This move was not “appeasement”; increased American travel and remittances do not “only” serve “to benefit the regime,” and this does not mark a retreat from fighting for the freedom of Cubans…

Rubio, to my knowledge, has never visited Cuba outside of the U.S.-controlled Guantanamo Bay facility. My 1998 experience of attempting to live in Havana convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that three of the most important and attainable things Cubans need, both for their basic human dignity and for their struggle against their totalitarian overlords, are 1) exposure to Americans; 2) increased access to non-governmental sources of money, and 3) increased access to information. Obama’s moves help on all three fronts…

If I hand a Cuban friend $100 in Havana, that Cuban now has $100 (which is four or five times the average monthly salary). Now, that friend may pay consumption taxes on things he buys with that $100 at a state-owned store, or pay taxes on the interest he earns by depositing the sum, but the bulk of the transaction goes to the individual Cuban, on terms that the Cuban governmet cannot “control.” Yes, increased transfers from Americans to Cubans will no doubt increase the net receipts of the Cuban government. But it will also doubtlessly increase the share of the island’s total money owned by individuals. It will, in other words, increase individual autonomy in one of the most repressed countries on earth.

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A son of Cuban emigres, Rubio’s anti-communist fervor no doubt comforts the aged, displaced Cubans of Miami, whose “trauma of exile — disbelief, guilt, a sense of loss — had shaped their lives and my own,” he wrote in his autobiography.

But it must puzzle his peers. Senator Rand Paul, who is almost a decade older than Rubio, is striving to be the Republican ambassador to youth. He called normalizing relations with Cuba “probably a good idea.” Rubio, who seems to cherish the role of favored grandson, called it “disgraceful.”…

The political calculation is not clear-cut. It’s always good to be viewed by Republican voters as President Barack Obama’s chief opponent on an issue. But most Americans don’t share Rubio’s passion for a tiny island of 11 million governed by a repressive, but otherwise easily ignored, regime. (Some Americans would very much like to build a hotel or two on Cuban beaches.) Today, Paul, who like Rubio is presumed to be angling toward a presidential run, directly attacked Rubio for making a pointless rearguard defense of a failed policy.

Fernand Amandi, managing partner of Bendixen & Amandi International, a polling firm with deep experience surveying Hispanic communities, told the New York Times: “On the issue he thinks he’s most knowledgeable about, he runs the risk of being rendered dead wrong if this new approach accelerates change and democracy to Cuba.”

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What about Rubio’s presidential campaign? As Sargent says, this is an easy one: the safest place in a Republican nomination battle is always on the side of those who oppose the Democratic president. And Cuba is a real opportunity for Rubio. Given the large field of more or less interchangeable candidates, it gives him a chance to demonstrate his political skills to party actors who are looking to differentiate among Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Mike Pence, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal and perhaps a few others — all of whom are mainstream conservatives with conventional credentials.

It’s hard for anyone to stand out in that group. But because Rubio is Cuban-American, and because he will be be chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Western Hemisphere and Global Narcotics Affairs in January, he is perfectly placed to generate publicity on this issue. And if he’s perceived to have done well, it will be an excellent advertisement for his candidacy, particularly for attentive Republican elites, but also, as Greg points out, in the broader “Conservative Entertainment Complex.” 

And in the event that Rubio wins the Republican presidential nomination? It’s probable that the issue will have faded from the headlines, and it would be a voting issue for very few people in any case.

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Mr. Obama should have learned and applied some of the hard lessons of normalization with China and Vietnam — most notably that engagement doesn’t automatically promote freedom. When the United States debated extending “most-favored-nation” trading status to China, we shared in what was then the conventional wisdom: Economic engagement would inevitably lead, over time, to political reform inside that Communist dictatorship. President Bill Clinton argued that no autocracy could control the relatively new tool of connection known as the Internet, certainly not while hoping to foster international trade and investment. Travel, openness, exposure to the American example — all this would, inexorably if gradually, push China to liberalize.

But the men who run China had other ideas. They were determined to reap the fruits of foreign investment and trade — for themselves and their families, first, but also for their country — without ceding power. So far, confounding expectations, they have succeeded. The Chinese standard of living has risen, and Chinese enjoy far more personal freedom than they did under Mao — to choose where to live, say, or whom to marry. But in the past decade, political freedom in China has declined — there is less freedom of speech, of the press, of cultural expression. More political prisoners have been locked up and tortured. Tens of thousands of censors keep tight control over the Internet.

The same is true in Vietnam: more foreign investment, less political and religious freedom, more bloggers in prison. And these are not anomalies: In the years that Mr. Obama has been in office, freedom has receded across the globe — without much protest or response from his administration…

Mr. Obama could have linked a step-by-step normalization with Cuba to the regime’s satisfaction of these steps, which stop far short of introducing democracy. Instead he settled for the release of 53 political prisoners — or about half the number that Cuban human rights activists say are held — and a vague promise of greater access to the Internet.

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[I]t has been American policy for decades – the policy Obama says does not “work” – that the United States may and should provide significant aid as long as Cuba, in return, stops terrorizing its citizens, respects basic human and civil rights, respects democratic freedoms, refrains from arming terrorists and insurrectionists, liberalizes its economy, establishes a free press, and lays the groundwork for free and fair elections.

So, if that hasn’t “worked” to encourage Cuban reform, what is the president suggesting will “work”? Giving Cuba aid and legitimacy without requiring the regime to change? Why would we want to give an American taxpayer dime to, or help legitimize in any way, a regime that rejects these basic elements of a civilized society?

And has it occurred to the media and the president’s other apologists that American law and policy have not relentlessly mandated a blockade on and isolation of Cuba for all these years? All that had to happen to eliminate the restrictions, without any congressional action, was a halt to the persecution of the Cuban people by the Castro dictatorship…

So, since the dictator will not change, what will “work” is for us to change? What will “work” is to give the dictator the recognition, the legitimacy, the aid, and the trade money in exchange for no reforms?

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Critics of Obama’s overture to Cuba argue that close U.S. ties with Vietnam and China are proof that exposure to America does not translate into political freedom—it translates into greater access to Coca-Cola products, but not to the spread of American ideals of free speech and pluralism. These critics have a point, of course (though critics of these critics also have a point: If the U.S. can have normal diplomatic and commercial ties with China, a terrible violator of human rights, why should it not have normal diplomatic and commercial ties with Cuba, a country ruled by a government that is less malignant than China’s?)…

Here is my modest Plaza de Armas test: If, in two years, the booksellers on the plaza are selling books about something other than Che, and if they’re making actual money selling more of what they want to sell, then the argument that engagement leads to openness will look credible. I’m not expecting anything close to perfect freedom—I’d be surprised, in two years, to find Marco Rubio’s memoir for sale on the plaza—but I’ll go looking for some proof that change is actually happening. Internet connectivity, the release of political prisoners, the establishment of non-government newspapers—these are bigger tests. But the plaza test will be telling nonetheless.

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“I never start a fight but I’m happy to finish a fight.”

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Rubio appeared on Mark Levin‘s radio show late this afternoon and Levin immediately asked him about the dispute. Rubio said, “I think it’s unfortunate that Rand has decided to adopt Barack Obama’s foreign policy on this matter.”

Click the image to listen.

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