McConnell: I'm on Team Rubio in regard to Cuba

Beginning on Thursday night, a fight erupted on line between Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul over the new diplomatic opening to Cuba. Rubio slammed Paul for his ignorance, while Paul bizarrely accused Rubio of “isolationism” for opposing Barack Obama’s policies. Before that battle began in earnest, I spoke with incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a wide-ranging interview about his plans for the 114th Session of Congress. We discussed Cuba, and McConnell made it clear that he was relying on Rubio’s leadership on the issue — which might make for an awkward moment or two between McConnell and his fellow Kentuckian Rand Paul:

Jeffrey Poor at Breitbart transcribed it in his report:

“I don’t think we’ll get anything out of it other than it will strengthen the Castro brothers because it will give them the hard currency they’ve been dying to have to strengthen their regime,” McConnell said. “You know, every country we open up with doesn’t necessarily respond to that by engaging in democratic reforms. Someone the other day mentioned Vietnam as a good example. We’ve had a relationship with Vietnam now for 15 years. But the regime in how it treats its own people really hadn’t changed. So the opening up there did not necessarily produce the kind of internal reforms that are everybody had hoped for. I can’t imagine the Castro brothers will do anything but be strengthened and actually probably enriched by the normalization of relationships with this communist country.” …

“I think we have some real leverage here,” he added. “Marco Rubio, one of the Cuban-Americans in the Senate is an expert on Cuba. His parents came from there. We have two other Cuban-Americans in the Senate – Ted Cruz and Bob Menendez, a Democrat. They will need to come to us to confirm a new ambassador, to fund the operation. We will have some leverage. A number of the embargoes are statutory. So we do have some leverage and we intend to use it.”

Rubio wasn’t done, either. Later yesterday, he made an appearance on Mark Levin’s radio show to fire back again at Paul. If Paul wants to adopt Obama’s foreign policy, Rubio said, Paul should just say so:

Well I think it’s unfortunate that Rand has decided to adopt Barack Obama’s foreign policy on this matter….

So you have these people coming out saying ‘well we should try something different…’ and that’s what Rand did. He just basically repeated the talking points of the president. And that’s fine, he has every right to support the president’s foreign policy if that’s what he wants to line up with. But I’m telling you it isn’t going to work.

This notion that somehow by doing this there’s going to be change in Cuba is just not true. On the contrary it’s going to strengthen the regime who is openly bragging in Havana. They said it again today in Cuba, nothing is going to change. They’re not going to change their system of government. They’re not going to change their economic system. And what they are openly saying is that this is a victory against imperialism, that they have won, and they spent all day yesterday thanking their partners internationally for standing with them all these years.

The president gave away everything and we got nothing in return. No democratic oath, nothing, nothing in return.

Ted Cruz isn’t too happy about it, either. He expressed his opposition to the deal in a Time Magazine op-ed:

But simply criticizing the Obama administration approach is not enough. As Sanchez and Farinas pointed out, no one can deny that the Castros have successfully exploited their enmity with the United States to enhance their reputation as revolutionary freedom fighters. And as the critics of the embargo argue, we are 50 years into the project and the Castros are still in power. Of course we should look for new ways to relieve the misery of the Cuban people—but there are better options than what the Obama administration has proposed.

First, the United States should have demanded the immediate and unconditional release of Alan Gross before we negotiated economic relief for Cuba. We celebrate his return, but it should have been beholden on the Castros to demonstrate good faith in advance of any concessions on our part. And we should not be creating incentives for other oppressive regimes to seize and ransom American citizens.

In addition, the United States should have recognized the significant pressures the Castro regime currently faces, which recall those in the late 1990s when deprived of Soviet sponsorship, their regime was threatened with economic catastrophe. Then, Hugo Chavez stepped in to save them, but now, with the impending collapse of the Venezuelan economy, disaster looms again. If the United States is to provide an economic lifeline to Cuba at this critical juncture, we might have extracted some significant concessions…

We do have friends in Cuba, people like Elizardo Sanchez, Guillermo Farinas, and their many colleagues in the opposition. But this misguided policy of President Obama’s does nothing to help them. On the contrary it may well strengthen the Castros and entrench a new generation of their oppressors in power unless Congress steps in to stop it.

McConnell and I discuss plenty of other issues in our 14-plus minute interview, so be sure to listen to the whole clip, which aired exclusively on last night’s Hugh Hewitt show while I guest hosted. McConnell sees an opening for agreement on tax reform and trade in the new Congress with Obama, and possibly on some infrastructure projects. Otherwise, the next two years will look bleak — although McConnell intends to clean up the damage done to the Senate by Harry Reid over the last eight years and put budgeting and legislation back to regular order.