Reaction to changes in U.S.-Cuba relations fell mostly along party lines on Wednesday, with prospective GOP presidential candidates Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio denouncing the decision by the Obama administration.
Bush, the former governor of Florida, called the move toward easing ties with Cuba President Obama's latest misstep.
Though he said he was delighted that American Alan Gross had been released from a Cuban prison, he charged that Obama had again overstepped his executive authority.
"Cuba is a dictatorship with a disastrous human rights record, and now President Obama has rewarded those dictators," he said. "We should instead be fostering efforts that will truly lead to the fair, legitimate democracy that will ultimately prevail in Cuba."
Rubio, a Cuban-American from Florida, called the opening the latest in a long line of failed attempts by Obama to appease rogue regimes.
The president’s decision to begin normalizing relations with Cuba is inexplicable, Rubio said, while Cuba, like Syria, Iran and Sudan, remains a sponsor of terrorism.
“It colludes with America's enemies, near and far, to threaten us and everything we hold dear,” he said. “But most importantly, the regime's brutal treatment of the Cuban people has continued unabated. Dissidents are harassed, imprisoned and even killed.”
The new course announced by the White House, which covers diplomatic relations, cultural exchanges, economic engagements, religious travel and other policies, does not affect the longtime economic embargo. Only Congress can change that.
And said Rubio: “This Congress is not going to lift the embargo.”
Unlike many other Democrats, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who is the second Cuban-American in the Senate, criticized the exchange of Gross for three Cubans in prison in the United States as a swap of an innocent American for three convicted spies.
"President Obama's actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government,” he said.
With the exchange, the president established a dangerous precedent that invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans as bargaining chips, he said.
"This asymmetrical trade will invite further belligerence toward Cuba's opposition movement and the hardening of the government's dictatorial hold on its people,” he said.
Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, said that as attitudes toward Cuba have changed among younger Cuban Americans, opposition to the regime there comes with risks for politicians. Obama carried Cuban Americans in Florida in 2012, he said.
“People under 45 have a very different view than people over 45,” he said. “So it’s clearly a generational difference.”
Opinions shaped in 1960s, during the Cuban missile crisis and the Bay of Pigs invasion, do not necessarily still hold.
“So being opposed to the regime in Cuba is no longer a free ride for politicians,” he said. “There’s risks and costs.”
A poll done by Florida International University has tracked opinions of the Cuban-American community in South Florida for two decades. This year, it found that a slight majority of CubanAmericans in Miami-Dade County opposed continuing the embargo — 52 percent overall and 62 percent among those 18 to 29 years old. Sixty-eight percent favored diplomatic relations with Cuba and 69 percent backed lifting restrictions impeding all Americans from traveling to Cuba.
But 63 percent said they believed Cuba should continue to be designated a “State Sponsor of Terrorism,” with Iran, Sudan and Syria.
Among registered voters, 53 percent said they would be very likely or somewhat likely to vote for a candidate who supported re-establishing diplomatic relations. Fifty-seven percent said they would be very or somewhat likely to vote for someone who backed replacing the embargo with a policy that increased support for independent business owners in Cuba.
Much other reaction from national politicians fell along party lines, though some politicians took neutral tones.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who is to become the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that he was pleased Gross was being reunited with his family after years of mistreatment by the Castro regime.
"The new U.S. policy announced by the administration is no doubt sweeping, and as of now there is no real understanding as to what changes the Cuban government is prepared to make,” he said. “We will be closely examining the implications of these major policy changes in the next Congress."
Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona released a joint statement on Obama's announcement.
"We agree with President Obama that he is writing new chapters in American foreign policy. Unfortunately, today's chapter, like the others before it, is one of America and the values it stands for in retreat and decline," the statement read. "It is about the appeasement of autocratic dictators, thugs, and adversaries, diminishing America's influence in the world. Is it any wonder that under President Obama's watch our enemies are emboldened and our friends demoralized?"
House Speaker John Boehner also denounced the president's policy change.
"Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom - and not one second sooner. There is no 'new course' here, only another in a long line of mindless concessions to a dictatorship that brutalizes its people and schemes with our enemies," Boehner said.
Florida Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis, a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said that although he was happy for Gross and his family, the exchange made America less safe and emboldened the dictatorship in Cuba.
“This prisoner swap sends a signal to rogue regimes and actors that taking an American hostage can be leveraged into scoring policy concessions,” he said.
But two Republicans broke ranks, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina.
Flake, who traveled with Democrats Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland to Havana to pick up Gross, said the policies in place had done more to keep the Castro regimes in power.
Sanford said the existing travel policy was inconsistent with individual liberty and freedom of movement. The move toward establishing a U.S. embassy in Cuba was wise, he said.
Leahy, the chairman of the State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, congratulated Obama and Cuba President Raul Castro for making history.
“After 64 years of animosity rooted in the Cold War, they have finally put our two countries on a new path,” said Leahy, a Democrat who had visited Gross twice in prison in Cuba and who has led efforts for fundamental changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba.
U.S. policy has been frozen in time and had failed to achieved its goals, he said.
Michigan Democrat Sen. Carl Levin, who also met with Gross in prison, said that Gross’ release sends a message to Americans held around the world that the country will not forget them.
“A more regular relationship between the United States and Cuba has been overdue and is now possible,” he said. “U.S. policy up to now has not worked in U.S. interests, and it has not weakened the Cuban regime.”
Nevada Sen. Harry Reid said he supported Obama despite Cuba’s history, though he added: “I remain concerned about human rights and political freedom inside Cuba, but I support moving forward toward a new path with Cuba.”