The Cable

Cuba Hawks Blast Administration Despite Havana Arresting Fewer Political Opponents

Top Cuba hawks in Congress slammed the White House’s rapprochement with Havana on Tuesday despite a significant drop in the number of political opponents detained by the communist state since the two nations announced plans to restore diplomatic relations in December. During a subcommittee hearing run by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and attended by Robert ...

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Top Cuba hawks in Congress slammed the White House’s rapprochement with Havana on Tuesday despite a significant drop in the number of political opponents detained by the communist state since the two nations announced plans to restore diplomatic relations in December.

During a subcommittee hearing run by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and attended by Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the two Cuban-American lawmakers grilled America’s top diplomats for Latin America and human rights over the new policy and criticized U.S. plans to establish an embassy in the repressive country.

“Eighteen months of secret negotiations produced a bad deal, a bad deal for the Cuban people,” said Menendez. “In my view, we’ve compromised bedrock principles for virtually no concessions.”

During the packed hearing, Rubio and Menendez raised a number of issues related to the detention of opposition figures in Cuba and the country’s repression of key elements of civil society.

While administration officials repeatedly refused to defend the Cuban government, they said the new policy of engagement with Havana was the best alternative to a failed Cold War policy of isolation.

“Our previous approach to relations with Cuba over half a century … failed to empower the Cuban people,” said Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson. “It isolated us from democratic partners in this hemisphere and around the world and was used by the Cuban government as an excuse for restrictions on its citizens.”

Fortunately for the administration, Cuba’s routine suppression of political dissidents has lessened in recent weeks. According to the State Department, 178 opposition activists were detained by Cuban police in January, the lowest monthly sum in more than four years. That figure contrasts with a monthly average of 741 detentions last year and 536 in 2013.

Still, Jacobson acknowledged that the communist dictatorship remains deeply repressive and corrupt. “This administration is under no illusions about the nature of the Cuban government,” she said. “I also raised with our Cuban interlocutors our concerns about its harassment, use of violence, and arbitrary detention of Cuban citizens peacefully expressing their views.”

During the hearing, Rubio also called out two White House officials by name for not attending the hearing: Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes and NSC Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs Ricardo Zuniga. The two men both played outsized roles in fleshing out and negotiating the Cuba deal. “Unfortunately, the White House Counsel’s Office informed us that they would not be allowed to testify at this hearing,” said Rubio.

But on Tuesday, the debate over the Obama administration’s Cuba policy did not fall down predictably along party lines, with Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona standing in as one of the most vocal boosters of the new policy.

“If somebody’s going to restrict my travel, it should be a communist, not my own government,” said Flake, who wants Congress to lift the half-century-old trade embargo against Cuba. The rapprochement also has the support of Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, who, like Rubio, is a potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate.

Democrats, such as Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Barbara Boxer of California, applauded the initiative, which was announced in December with the release of U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross. The improvement in ties resulted in the Obama administration lifting several restrictions on Cuba and Havana releasing 53 political prisoners.

The next challenge for the Obama administration will be selecting a nominee as ambassador to Cuba, and getting that nominee through what many expect to be one of the most contentious confirmation hearings of the president’s second term.

Congressional critics of the deal have long accused Obama of effectively kowtowing to longtime Cuban strongman Fidel Castro, a line of attack complicated by lingering questions about whether Castro — who handed power to his brother in 2006 — was even still alive.

On Tuesday, though, Granma, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, published a series of photographs purportedly taken 10 days ago that show Castro meeting with Randy Perdomo García, a student leader at the University of Havana. In the 21 pictures, which the paper says were taken at Castro’s home, the Cuban leader appears in good spirits, wearing a blue-checkered shirt under a Fila sweatshirt. Castro’s wife, Dalia Soto del Valle, stands in the background as García shows Castro, who would be 88 if he is really still alive, a newspaper.

The last time Castro appeared in public was Jan. 8, 2014. The last photos of the former Cuban leader were published in August 2014. Last week, Granma published a letter it says was written by the Cuban leader endorsing the recent thaw in relations between Havana and Washington, but adding that he still “didn’t trust” the United States.

David Francis contributed to this report.

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