Republicans on Wednesday broadly slammed President Barack Obama's plan to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than five decades, charging that it is yet another example of an inept foreign policy — especially since it said nothing about the Castro regime's longstanding human-rights abuses.
"The Cuban people are no freer today than they were the first day of the Cuban regime," Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a CNN interview. "The more things change, the more nothing changes in Cuba."
Ros-Lehtinen, the daughter of Cuban exiles living in the United States, chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee for two years.
"We did not help the Cuban people get freer today by this deal," she said.
"This policy change is a gift for the Cuban government that has done nothing to provide basic, fundamental human rights to the Cuban people," said Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, a member of the Senate Budget Committee. "This decision rewards a brutal regime without any significant commitment toward change for the oppressed Cuban people."
In a televised speech, President Obama said that the change involved 18 months of secret negotiations facilitated by the Vatican and Canada. He called the nation's policy of isolating Cuba rigid and outdated and said it had not been effective in achieving change on the Communist-run island.
"We will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries," the president said. "Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people, and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas."
Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro agreed to the change on Tuesday, which included a prisoner exchange and the opening of embassies in both countries.
Under the deal,
Alan Gross, 65, was released to the United States on Wednesday after five years of captivity in Havana in exchange for three Cubans who had been convicted as spies.
Gross was arrested on Dec. 3, 2009, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was charged with importing banned technology and trying to establish clandestine Internet service for Cuban Jews.
He had been working as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
"He obviously is joyful about being reunited with his family," Obama later told ABC News.
"It was tough while he was locked up."
The president added: "I don’t have any current plans to visit Cuba.... Let’s see how things evolve."
The agreement also requires Cuba to release an intelligence agent who spied for the United States and was held for nearly 20 years.
Obama lauded Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, for his role
in seeking Gross' release. A large part of Cuba's population is Roman Catholic. The Vatican worked closely with both sides and hosted in-person meetings of U.S. officials, senior White House officials said.
The policy change will open both countries to some commerce and transportation, though it will not end a longstanding trade embargo. That needs congressional approval — and some travel restrictions will gradually be eased.
Located 90 miles south of Florida, Cuba and the United States have been at odds since shortly after the 1959 revolution that brought Raul Castro's older brother, Fidel Castro, to power.
Washington ended diplomatic relations with Havana in 1961 — and the United States has maintained the trade embargo for more than 50 years.
Sen. Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who is the outgoing Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, praised Gross' release but sharply criticized the administration for the price it paid.
Republicans also welcomed the release, with others appreciating Pope Francis' involvement in the talks while slamming Obama's plans. Senators vowed to use the appropriations process to block the United States from opening an embassy in Cuba.
"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," said Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, who will succeed Menendez when the GOP takes over next month. "We will be closely examining the implications of these major policy changes in the next Congress."
Florida Rep. Dennis Ross cautioned that "it is important to remember the Castro regime has oppressed, imprisoned, and murdered countless friends and relatives of Cuban-Americans across the state of Florida.
"We must not excuse or forget about the decades of human-rights violations committed by this oppressive regime."
Others took to social media, including House Speaker John Boehner, who said on Twitter:
As did South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham:
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said in a Facebook posting
that "the heinous Castro brothers who have oppressed the Cuban people for decades" will be the "benefactors of President Obama's ill-advised move."
Bush said on Tuesday that he would "actively explore"
a run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
Also on CNN, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz accused the White House of giving away too much for Gross' return and blasted Obama's decision as a "mistake" that would be "coddling our enemies."
"We should be negotiating from a position of strength," he told Wolf Blitzer. "The consistent failing of this administration is that it believes the way to deal with dictators and tyrants is through appeasement.
"I think weakness is provocative — and I believe in peace through strength that's far more effective in protecting our country," he said.
But another Florida legislator, Sen. Marco Rubio, was perhaps the most stinging in his attacks.
He and Cruz also are children of Cuban immigrants. Both are also considering 2016 White House runs.
"This notion that somehow being able to travel more to Cuba, to sell more consumer products, the idea that’s going to lead to some democratic opening is absurd," Rubio told Fox News.
"But it’s par for the course with this administration constantly giving away unilateral concessions … in exchange for nothing."
Rubio said he would use his role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Western Hemisphere subcommittee in the new Congress to try to block the plan.
Despite the attacks, though, Arizona GOP Sen. Jeff Flake said he believed that many Republicans favored better U.S. relations with Cuba.
"My sense is that most of my colleagues feel we are long past due, and so I think the politics are good," Flake, who flew back from Cuba with Gross, told a news conference in Washington.
Juan Carlos Hidalgo, a policy analyst on Latin America at Cato Institute, agreed.
"There are fresh voices within the Republican caucus that have been pushing for change for many years," he told Newsmax. "We have people in the Republican Party who realize that the current policy has been a blatant failure and that it requires a change.
"Unfortunately, the leading voices on this topic have been voices that are stuck in the past," Hidalgo added, "and they want the status quo to remain in place."
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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