President Obama’s announcement on Wednesday that the United States would reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba despite, as President Raúl Castro proclaimed, the Cuban government yielding no concessions on human rights or economic freedom, has highlighted a major rift in the American right.
On one side, free market libertarians, most without personal experience with the communist regime, argue that eliminating restrictions on trade with Cuba will allow the free market to flood the island, creating a situation akin to that of nations like Hungary and Romania at the turn of the century, where citizens began demanding freedom after being exposed to the benefits of a free society.
On the other side are those who agree that free trade leads to free democracies, but do not see any evidence of President Obama’s deal leading to free trade in Cuba. Without Cuba making any concessions, the argument goes, the communist regime is free to deny access to American businesses or, worse: heavily tax the industry to the point that none of their business trickles down to the Cuban people. Many of those on this side of the camp have personal experience with the Cuban communist regime, or grew up with family members who fled the island after the Revolution.
No personal debate has embodied this tension more than the very public disagreement between Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, one of whom is the son of Cuban exiles. Rubio spent hours in the public eye on Wednesday condemning President Obama’s actions, and when asked his reaction to Paul’s stance on the issue– a boilerplate libertarian response on how Obama’s action will bring iPods to impoverished Cubans— he stated plainly that Sen. Paul “has no idea what he’s talking about.”
Taking apparent offense, Sen. Paul went on a social media offensive, even joking that Sen. Rubio may want to “perhaps build a moat” – between Cuba and the United States, presumably. As anyone who has looked at a map of this hemisphere knows, there is already a “moat” between Cuba and the United States, and experts estimate 25% of those who try to cross it to freedom die. In addition to the lack of consideration for the deaths of those who dare risk their lives to travel to the United States for freedom, conservatives will remember this quip has having originally belonged to President Barack Obama, used to mock those who oppose immigration reform.
Sen. Paul later went on to say that Sen. Rubio’s reaction to his comments was “rude and intemperate,” but at no moment did Sen. Rubio jokingly dismiss Sen. Paul’s opinion, nor was he the one who mocked the concerns of the Cuban American community as paranoia. As the child of a family who fled the Castro regime and an expert on Cuban-American politics, Sen. Rubio merely posited that Sen. Paul’s take on the matter was myopic. Sen. Paul responded by joking, although likely unintentionally, about Cuba’s balsero crisis— the deluge of more than 30,000 Cubans in makeshift nautical vessels attempting to cross to America between August and September of 1994.
Sen. Paul also responded with a bizarre attempt to infuse his personal family experience into his take on Cuba. “I grew up in a family that despised, not only communism, but collectivism, socialism and any ‘ism’ that deprived the individual of his or her natural rights,” he writes in Time. “As a kid, I listened to the stories of an old Ukrainian fisherman who talked of fighting the Bolsheviks. More times than I can remember, I’ve heard horror stories of those who fled Castro’s Cuba.”
Conservative principles do not allow those on the right to play the “race” card or dismiss Sen. Paul’s opinion simply because of his privileged background– the son of a successful doctor and member of Congress, the most elite club in the world. Sen. Paul’s take on Cuba is deeply held by many free market libertarians and, expressed with the proper respect, has a place in the national conservative conversation. But the optics of Sen. Paul using his family background as a pedestal from which to browbeat the son of Cuban exiles over how to approach the Castro regime are less than stellar, even without taking into consideration his famous father’s cozy ties to Putin propaganda outlet Russia Today.
Many have made some version of the argument Senator Paul is attempting to make on the issue of Cuba. In Breitbart’s pages, Council on Global Security President Katharine C. Gorka articulately uses the history of Eastern Europe to craft a more optimistic yet nuanced view on the matter. Very few on the right have approached Cuban exiles with mockery over the emotional fallout of President Obama’s decision the way Senator Paul has on Twitter. Few have made it a contest over whose family is more anti-communist or dismissed the Cuban-American reaction as pure emotion, to be disregarded.
Whatever Sen. Paul’s intended strategy may have been, it is difficult to see the Cuban exile community–many of which are proud conservatives– forgetting his choice to stand with President Obama against one of their few elected members of Congress, supporting cooperation with the Castro regime because of something a Ukrainian fisherman once told him.