Sen. Jeff Flake says President Barack Obama is doing the right thing for Cuba. Flake is a key Republican ally of the president’s decision to open up economic and diplomatic relations with Cuba.
“What President Obama has done here is much more similar to what President Reagan did with the Soviet Union,” Flake said in an interview with Breitbart News after traveling with the president aboard Air Force One for his flight to Cuba.
Flake, who has been traveling to Cuba since 2001, explained that as a Republican he thinks that trade, travel, and economic opportunity are among the strongest tools for democracy to spread around the world.
“I think this is the best thing that we can do — the best ‘get tough’ policy with the government to try and foster some change,” he said, referring to the dramatic growth in the private sector.
Cuba, he argued, had come a long way in the five years since Obama opened up travel for Cuban Americans to the island and allowing them to send money to family members. That influx of money served as “seed capital” he argued, that improved the lives of Cubans.
“Far, far, far, more Cubans are better off in terms of human rights, because of U.S. travel and remittances and revenue frankly that helps Cuban small business people,” he said. “The economic agenda is very much a human rights agenda as well.”
But Flake cautioned that increased economic activity with the Cuban people should not be thought as a capitulation or agreement with the communist dictatorship that still existed under the Castro brothers.
“I don’t think we need to have any respect for the system, I certainly don’t, it’s a failed communist socialist system,” Flake said. “But the policies that we have now are benefiting the Cuban people and I think will lead to a hastier transition to democracy than what we had.”
The U.S.-Cuban trade embargo, he argued, was helping keep the communism system in power, driving anti-American sentiment.
“We’ve been the scapegoat for the failure of communism. And the reason Cuba is poor, is because of a failed social system,” he said. “Full stop.”
Flake also cited five years of progress for internet access in the country as more and more wi-fi hotspots were opened up in hotels and restaurants. He acknowledged that even though the Cuban government tried to block some websites, some had found ways to work around the attempts at censorship. Those who had access, he explained, could use Facebook and Twitter depending on where they were connected.
“That’s changing rapidly now,” he said, citing the agreement with Google to provide more internet service.
Other Cubans were able to obtain information and entertainment from a network of sharing USB flash drives, he revealed.
“Some of the shows, Mexican novellas, CSI, you name it,” he said. “It all comes down by flash drive and then it is distributed around in a very informal network.”
Flake was sympathetic to Cuban-Americans who loathed the Castro regime and were suspicious of any effort by Americans to reopen diplomatic ties with the communist dictators.
“I feel for those whose families fled communism and had their property taken and everything else,” he said, pointing to the shared stories of family members who suffered greatly when the Castro regime seized power.
“That’s a tough thing to get over, and I don’t blame those who have called for embargo and tough measures in the past,” he admitted.
Flake endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio for president — even though they have sharp differences on the direction of Cuban foreign policy.
In a statement, Rubio condemned the president’s planned visit as “naive” and misguided” adding that it “promises to be one of the most disgraceful trips ever taken by a U.S. president anywhere in the world.”
Flake, however, traveled with the president to Cuba and planned to attend many of the president’s events in the country, including a baseball game this afternoon between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team.
“Marco and I … I think, agree to disagree on the value of the policy that we’ve had,” Flake said, when asked about their differences on the issue. “We’ve had it for well over 50 years and it hasn’t had the desired effect.”