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    Rubio clashes with State Dept. at Cuba hearing

    Rubio clashes with State Dept. at Cuba hearing
    02/03/2015 1:40 PM 02/03/2015 9:41 PM

    Sen. Marco Rubio began an assault on the White House plan to relax
    trade, travel and diplomatic restrictions with Cuba, telling top
    administration officials Tuesday that he didn’t think it would be
    effective and that human rights were being overlooked.

    In the first of several congressional hearings on President Barack
    Obama’s policy, Rubio laid into the administration. Rubio reiterated his
    strong objections, saying he had “deep reservations” about — and “direct
    opposition” to — many of the changes being proposed.

    He did so, he said, “for the simple reason that I believe that they will
    not be effective” in bringing about meaningful change to Cuba.

    The West Miami Republican and potential presidential candidate has
    emerged as Congress’ chief critic of the new Cuba policy. In a Senate
    Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing, Rubio said the opening to Cuba
    neglected the reality of human rights abuses on the island.

    Rubio, whose parents came from Cuba in 1956, took the reins of the
    Western Hemisphere subcommittee as Republicans took control of the
    Senate last month.

    But other senators were supportive of the new Cuba policy, including
    Sens. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, and Jeff Flake, a
    Republican from Arizona. Flake said it was time to relax travel
    restrictions between the United States and Cuba, something he has pushed
    for years.

    The administration, represented by Roberta S. Jacobson, the assistant
    secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, contended during the
    hearing that the United States was pursuing the opening with its eyes
    wide open, and that it was time to pursue a different strategy from the
    one that has failed for a half-century.

    “This administration is under no illusions about the continued barriers
    to internationally recognized freedoms that remain for the Cuban people,
    nor are we under illusions about the nature of the Cuban government,”
    said Jacobson, who led the U.S. delegation in last month’s talks in
    Havana. “When we sat down with our counterparts in Havana, we were clear
    that our governments have both shared interests and sharp differences.”

    Ticking off a list of issues over which the two countries are
    negotiating, Jacobson said she raised with Cuban officials “our concerns
    about its harassment, use of violence and arbitrary detention of Cuban
    citizens peacefully expressing their views.”

    Rubio and New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, are key Senate
    opponents to the policy.

    In his opening statement, Menendez said that despite the length of the
    negotiations between U.S. and Cuban officials, the two sides hadn’t come
    up with anything worthwhile.

    “Let me be as clear on this issue as I have been since December,” he
    said. “Eighteen months of secret negotiations produced a bad deal — bad
    for the Cuban people. While it may have been done with the best of
    intentions, in my view, we’ve compromised bedrock principles for minimal

    He continued: “At the end of the day, 53 political prisoners were
    released while so many more remain in jail and the Cuban people — those
    who suffered most under the regime — still have zero guarantees for any
    basic freedoms.”

    The Obama administration’s plans to open the door to Cuba became public
    with a dramatic unveiling in December, with the release of USAID
    subcontractor Alan Gross and the announcement that trade and travel
    restrictions will be eased and that the United States would work to
    reestablish diplomatic ties with Cuba.

    In his questioning, Rubio drilled into the fact that Jacobson’s office
    was not the prime mover on the new Cuba policy. And he wanted to know
    which pro-democracy groups in Cuba were consulted.

    He also pushed for a declaration from the administration that the
    opening of any diplomatic presence, such as a U.S. embassy, wouldn’t
    come with restrictions on the ability of embassy personnel to visit
    democracy activists.

    Citing recent public comments from a top Cuban official, Josefina Vidal,
    Rubio asked Jacobson whether the United States would ever go forward
    with an agreement that — as Vidal indicated — made certain pro-democracy
    activists in the country off-limits to embassy personnel.

    The United States also limits the travels of Cuban diplomats in the
    United States.

    Vidal actually said during a Cuban Television interview earlier this
    week that Cuba was willing to have a discussion about freedom of
    movement for embassy personnel but that it was important that the
    behavior of U.S. diplomats in Havana change.

    She accused them of training, supplying and financing “elements within
    our country who act against the interests of the state, the government
    and the Cuban people.”

    In a back-and-forth with Jacobson, Rubio pressed her for an answer.

    Rubio: “Can you say … that under no circumstances will the United States
    ever agree to limit the ability of our personnel to interact with
    democracy activists … as a condition of expanding our embassy operation?”

    “I don’t know if that is a real condition on their part,” said Jacobson,
    indicating that Vidal’s remarks may have been more for domestic
    consumption in Cuba than the Cuban negotiating position.

    But Jacobson said the United States wanted to have the “greatest
    possible ability” to interact with people on the island.

    Rubio: So we will never agree to limit our personnel?

    Jacobson: “We’re going to keep pushing to get those restrictions lifted
    as part of getting an embassy…”

    Rubio cut her off, saying, “Secretary Jacobson, this is a pretty
    straightforward question.” Asked the question again, Jacobson said that
    she “can’t imagine that we would go to the next stage of our diplomatic
    relationship with an agreement not to see democracy activists, no.”

    The hearing also included testimony from Cuban human rights activists,
    including Berta Soler, president of the Ladies in White, a Cuban
    dissident organization. Speaking through translators, the activists
    described the repressive life on the island.

    Rubio dominated the hearing, though Flake and others made it clear that
    Rubio’s stance faces resistance in Congress. But Rubio and his
    Republican allies could crack jokes about their differences.

    At one point, after a long reply in Spanish from Soler, Rubio began
    talking before the translator had performed her role.

    Rubio apologized, saying that he had understood Soler and forgot that
    his colleagues in the Senate often couldn’t.

    “What I’ve told Sen. Flake is don’t worry about the translation,” Rubio
    joked. “I’ll let them know later what they’re saying.”

    Miami Herald staff writer Mimi Whitefield contributed to this report.

    Source: Rubio clashes with State Dept. at Cuba hearing | The Miami
    Herald The Miami Herald –