Rand Paul, Marco Rubio Exchange Barbs Over Cuba Policy Changes

Two potential candidates for the Republican nomination in 2016 traded barbs this week over the President's new policy toward Cuba.

Marco Rubio Rand Paul

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s open break with other Republicans, and other GOP 2016 contenders, over the President’s decision to open diplomatic relations with Cuba and drop some trade and travel restrictions along with that opening earned him a quick rebuke from fellow Republican Senator Marco Rubio that quickly developed into something of a Twitter war between the two politicians yesterday:

The first battle of the GOP primary began on radio and cable news, spilled over to Twitter and splashed across Facebook and the wider Internet, a preview of the Republican Party’s coming cage match over foreign policy.

First, on Thursday, Marco Rubio ripped into Rand Paul’s support for President Obama’s call to lift the five-decade embargo on Cuba.

“Like many people who have been opining, he has no idea what he’s talking about,” the hawkish Florida senator told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly.

Rubio was responding to this from his Senate colleague, and putative 2016 rival: “The 50-year embargo just hasn’t worked, if the goal was regime change, it sure doesn’t seem to be working,” the Kentucky senator said in a radio interview earlier in the day. “Probably, it punishes the people more than the regime because the regime can blame the embargo for hardship.”

Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, has emerged this week as the furious face of the GOP’s opposition to Obama’s opening to Cuba. While it does not lift the embargo — that would require congressional approval — the policy shift does ease restrictions and open diplomatic ties.

“The embargo is not what’s hurting the Cuban people, it’s the lack of freedom and the lack of competent leaders,” Rubio continued.

Beginning Friday morning, Senator Paul took to Twitter to respond to the Florida Senator:

Senator Paul was slightly less direct in his response to Rubio in a Time Op-Ed, but it was clear who is referring to:

The 50-year embargo against Cuba has not worked. If the goal was regime change, then it sure does not seem to be working. It also hurts the people more than the regime, because the regime can blame the embargo for hardship.

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.

Let’s hope cooler heads will ultimately prevail and we unleash a trade tsunami that washes the Castros once and for all into the sea.

As Daniel Larison notes, Senator Paul’s use of the “isolationist” jab against Senator Rubio is amusing because of the number of times that it he has falsely been accused of being an “isolationist merely for advocating a less interventionist foreign policy that concentrates more on diplomacy and opening barriers to trade than it does on military force, trying to undermine regimes, and bombing with indiscriminate drone strikes to achieve its goals. Indeed, in this particular area it seems to me that it is entirely fair to call Rubio something of an “iisolationist because he, like other supporters of an embargo that was imposed before either Senator Paul or Senator Rubio was even born that has utterly failed to achieve any of the purposes for which it was supposedly put in place. The Castro brothers remain in power. Cuba still does not have anything approaching a functioning democratic system. The state of human rights in the country is as atrocious as it has ever been, and there is no such thing as freedom of speech or of the press. To the extent that the embargo was meant to bring an end to any of these things it has, quite clearly, failed in its objectives. As Reason’s Matt Welch puts it, on balance it seems clear that Senator Paul has the better argument here.

There was, of course, a strong argument in favor of the embargo when the Cold War was in full swing and Cuba was acting as a de facto client state of our chief world adversary and helping to destabilize regimes in Central and South America and even Africa for a time. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, though, and given the fact that the United States has open and indeed warm diplomatic relationships with a host of nations known to violate human rights either in the past or on a continuing basis, including China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to name just a few, the logic for maintaining the embargo simply doesn’t exist. At this point, it can only be said to exist because of domestic political concerns, specifically bowing to political pressure from the Cuban American community in Florida, and age old resentments against the Castro regime. At this point, those are the only reasons that people like Senator Rubio can seem to come up with for isolating the United States from Cuba, unlike every other country in the world, and as with any other form of isolationism the only people it hurts are the people of Cuba and the people of the United States.

Looking at this through a political lens, some are confused as to why Paul would pick this particular fight with the junior Senator from Florida. Allahpundit, for example, put it this way:

Why? Why, with the primary campaign just weeks away from going full tilt, would he suddenly refuse to pander to a position that probably 85 percent of the right-wingers he’s trying to woo hold? And not only is his position one that’s disfavored by the right, however ambivalent the rest of America might be about the embargo these days, it’s one that righties will forever associate with Obama and his foreign policy “legacy.” Paul may think he’s waging war on Rubio on behalf of libertarianism but I bet most conservatives will see it as him waging war on behalf of Obama. It doesn’t even make sense at the micro level: As Harry Enten explains, while Cuban-Americans generally may be more conflicted about the embargo than they used to be, Cuban-American Republicans in Florida aren’t.


“He believes in his position” is no answer; as I’ve explained, that’s never stopped Rand from moderating before. One Twitter pal theorized that maybe Paul hit hard here because he wanted to stand out in the field. But … that’s my point. He already stands out! He stands out so much on foreign policy that he’s spent two years trying to stand out less, knowing that it’s a potential liability for him. Another friend speculates that Paul likes the “you’re the real isolationist!” line so much that he couldn’t resist throwing it in Rubio’s face, even if it means stridently opposing conservative orthodoxy in this case. When Rubio or Jeb Bush calls him an isolationist at the first presidential debate next year, Rand now has a ready comeback. The problem there, though, is that it won’t just be Rubio or Bush who’s calling him that; it’ll be the entire field, Christie, Walker, Huckabee, you name it. If mainstream conservatives watch 20 different big-name Republican pols assure them that Paul’s dangerously naive on Cuba, how much counterweight will Paul saying “no, you’re the naive one!” really have? Worst of all, perhaps, Paul’s devoted the past year to building the case that, as a “realist,” he’s actually the true heir to Ronald Reagan on foreign policy, not Rubio and the rest of the superhawks. What’s his counter now, though, when Rubio reminds him that the Reagan administration kept the embargo in place? It feels like he’s blowing himself up here on what would otherwise have been a boutique issue in the primaries, except for one key primary where it really matters and Paul’s bizarrely on the wrong side of it.

Ian Tuttle raises a similar question, and is similarly confused as to why Paul would so deliberately step on what can fairly be considered a third rail in Florida politics, especially among the Cuban American Republican population.

In the end, of course, only Senator Paul can speak to why he chose to speak out on this issue in a way that it, as I said in my earlier post, quite contrary to where the majority of Republicans likely stand on this issue, but I can’t see why either Allahpundit or Tuttle are all that surprised that he did. After all, this is hardly the first time that the Senator has spoken out in a way that differentiates him from large segments of the Republican Party. Viewed from that perspective, it’s probable that Paul is saying something he actually believes here, which may be more than those of us who are usually used to viewing politics through an incredibly cynical lens can’t always relate to. No doubt, of course, the Senator is aware that he’s going against the GOP grain here just as he has in other areas of foreign policy over the past four years. As I’ve said before, this is something that Paul is likely to take a lot of heat for in the Presidential race should he actually decide to run, and I’m sure he’s aware of that as well. So why do it? Well, I think what we may be seeing here is the beginning of a campaign that is built on the twin pillars of standing up against a tide of GOP critics who are advocating policies that offer nothing more than more of the same failure and appealing to voters who don’t ordinarily vote in Republican primaries. Will it work? I don’t know, but it would be interesting to watch and if it leads to a real debate inside the Republican Party over foreign policy then let’s bring it on.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, US Politics, , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Another Mike says:

    I have never heard a politician lay out a position so clearly as Senator Rubio did when interviewed by Mark Levin. Listen here: http://therightscoop.com/listen-to-marco-rubios-fantastic-interview-with-mark-levin-on-cuba/

  2. Paul Hooson says:

    Jim Cramer made the most sense of this issue. This is good for American business. – That defines which side Republicans will fall on with this issue. Mainstream business Republicans will see this as good for business, while conservatives won’t like it….

  3. michael reynolds says:

    @Another Mike:

    I’m baffled as to what you found compelling in that recitation of non-sequiturs.

    Every argument he raises against Cuba could be raised and multiplied against China. Cuba has no potential to be a military threat, China does. Cuba threatens no US allies – China does. Cuba has no weight at the UN – China does. And yet we do hundreds of billions of dollars worth of business with China.

    Why? Why would it make sense to trade with China, and not Cuba?

    This is just Rubio trying desperately for some stand that will make him a player in presidential politics. But Jeb has already (more quietly) dittoed Rubio’s stand, and if one of the two of them is making it from Florida to New Hampshire, it ain’t gonna be little Marco. And Paul and Flake have already defected, giving Obama cover and forcing the GOP to fight this internally. So, Rubio’s flailing.

    It’s all for nothing. Diplomatic relations will be established, Obama doesn’t need Republicans for that. I guarantee you the Miami Cubans are already trying to figure out how to profit from this. Big business is with Obama on this. So by the time a New Hampshire debate rolls around the only question will be whether we should in fact break diplomatic relations with Cuba. The question will have shifted. By then Jeb will be muttering about “the timing” and “the lack of consultation,” and then admitting that no, he would not break diplomatic relations with Cuba.

    This is not a winner for Rubio or the GOP. Face reality: Obama took this hand.

  4. anjin-san says:

    “The embargo is not what’s hurting the Cuban people, it’s the lack of freedom and the lack of competent leaders,” Rubio continued.

    Hmm. We have some problems with this closer to home.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Emotions understandably run high for those whose parents and grandparents had their land and their lives taken from them.

    Every time I hear a white person in America utter these words, I snicker. Don’t know why, can’t imagine, but it just hits my funny bone.

    As to the larger point of this post:

    Why? Why, with the primary campaign just weeks away from going full tilt, would he suddenly refuse to pander to a position that probably 85 percent of the right-wingers he’s trying to woo hold?

    Isn’t it obvious? He figures the GOP is toast in 2016. He is playing for 2020. Take the position(s) that the far right abhors and can not abide but the vast majority of GOP voters can live with, and by far the majority of gen electoral voters agree with, and come 2020 and 12 years of Dems in the Oval office with constant partisan bickering between the left and the right and the inevitable economic downturn and true desperation in the GOP to win the top office and….

    Rightly or wrongly, he is playing the long game, and I think he is right to. Not sure it is a winning game, but it is a dam sight better than playing the hand he is dealt in 2016.

  6. superdestroyer says:

    Who cares” Neither man is ever going to be president and neither one is very going to be able to influence foreign policy. Everyone should just stop paying attention to what Republicans say about foreign policy since the Republicans will never control the White House again. I guess focusing on irrelevant Republicans is easier than writing about those who actually influence foreign policy and what their long term goals are.

  7. Another Mike says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Why? Why would it make sense to trade with China, and not Cuba?

    Listen to it again. I think Senator Rubio addresses this.

  8. Gustopher says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Cuba has no potential to be a military threat

    I could see Putin wanting a replay of the Cuban Missile Crisis, believing that he would succeed where others have failed, and wanting a distraction from his collapsing economy. I don’t see Cuba going along with this, of course, but they could.

    Anyway, potential military threat would just mean that there is more reason, not less, to normalize relations with Cuba. Also, it’s a nice thumb in the eye for the North Koreans, who would also love a normal relationship and an easing of sanctions.

  9. michael reynolds says:

    @Another Mike:

    No, he just goes over the same logic-free, emotional ground. One time was enough. If you think I’ve missed something, why don’t you tell me what it is. Because there is no case to be made here. Rubio is simply wrong and talking emotional nonsense.

  10. anjin-san says:


    I could see Putin wanting a replay of the Cuban Missile Crisis,

    How would that work in a world where a couple of Russian missile subs with MIRVED nuclear weapons can effectively destroy our country? Cuba as a military platform from which to threaten America made sense in the early 60s. Now? Not so much.

  11. Tyrell says:

    Raul Castro made some statement yesterday “don’t expect detente to change the Cuban communist system”. Unbelievable in itself. The last time I heard the term “detente” was used was back in the days of Nixon – Brezhnev – Kissinger.I guess we can expect to see manual typewriters and 8 track players common down there. They even still use phone booths ! And have you seen the cars those people get around in ?
    When American tourists, investors, and business people start heading down there, they are not going to go around in some rattletrap ’57 Packard that looks like it is held together with tape and bubble gum and ready to fall apart. Judging from some recent photos, Cuba is in some sort of time capsule. Raul: :”bring about a prosperous and sustaining socialism” ? Really? American trade, culture, tourists, investments will bring about a free enterprise, economic machine with true opportunity : that is what would happen once you open the door.
    It has been known for sometime that investors and business people have been in contact with Raul. He has been described as pragmatic, sensible, and level headed. I believe these sort of statements from Raul may appear to be trying to back the train up, or put the horse back in the barn, but he is probably trying to calm some of his cronies. One thing for sure: Fidel is gone, out, and not a factor.
    These things will bring change to Cuba: WalMart, McDonalds, selfies, iPhones, Taco Bell, Starbucks, outlet malls, movies , modern US literature, US tv networks, major league sports (now that is something Fidel will definitely like), Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Plus, and Camaros/Mustangs.

  12. michael reynolds says:

    Costco for the win.