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Steve and Cokie Roberts: Rubio on wrong side of history

Sen. Marco Rubio has his views, and he’s sticking to them. He fiercely opposes all of President Obama’s initiatives to normalize relations with Cuba.

“I don’t care if 99 percent of the people in polls disagree with my position,” insists the Florida Republican, a child of Cuban immigrants who wants to run for president in 2016. “This is my position and I feel passionately about it.”

The new Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has bowed to that passion and outsourced his party’s Cuba policy to Rubio. “I’m … persuaded that Marco’s right about this,” he says.

They’re both wrong.

Cuban-Americans like Rubio deeply despise the Castro regime in Havana, and for more than 50 years they’ve managed to dictate a policy of isolation and intolerance toward their home island. Their fervent defense of freedom deserves respect, even honor.

But there’s no denying the blunt facts: Their policy hasn’t worked. Instead of promoting freedom, they’ve promoted repression. Instead of destabilizing the Castro regime, they’ve reinforced it.

Sen. Jeff Flake, a conservative Republican from Arizona, contradicts the view — popular among Cuban exiles — that Obama’s initiative was a “concession” to the Castro regime.

“I think that that is a wrong way to look at it. That is simply wrong,” he told Politico. “The policy that we’ve had in place for the past 50 years has done more in my view … to keep the Castro regimes in power than anything we could’ve done.”

Even many Cuban-Americans now understand that isolation is a failed policy that undermines our national interest. And hardliners like Rubio are increasingly out of step with the shifting sentiments in their own community.

A recent poll of Cuban-Americans in the Miami area found that more than two-thirds support key elements of Obama’s overtures: re-establishing diplomatic relations and lifting travel restrictions. A smaller majority, 52 percent, also favors ending the trade embargo against Cuba, a shift that would require Congressional approval and that Rubio has vowed to fight.

Significantly, the survey by Florida International University found a growing generation gap in the Cuban community. Sixty-two percent of those under 30 oppose the embargo, and 9 out of 10 want better relations with the island of their forebears.

Rubio and his supporters are not just on the wrong side of public opinion, even in their own universe. They are on the wrong side of history and experience.

Engagement, not isolation, advances the very values that conservatives profess to care so much about: free markets and personal liberty. And three previous Republican leaders have clearly understood that.

In 1972, President Richard Nixon traveled to China and initiated a new relationship with Beijing’s communist rulers. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan made a similarly courageous journey to Moscow (Steve went with him as the New York Times correspondent). In 1995, Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, helped broker the reconciliation between Washington and Hanoi.

The record of these relationships has been far from perfect, and often frustrating to the forces of freedom. Engagement is no magical highway to democracy. But progress is clear and conclusive.

Take China. Today, it is America’s second-largest trading partner, with $579 billion in goods and services exchanged in 2012. Yes, the Communist Party still rules the country with a clenched fist, but personal freedoms — to work, study, marry and move — have vastly improved. China scholars agree that America’s growing influence was a critical ingredient in encouraging those advances.

Richard Bernstein, author of a new book on China, told the Washington Post that Beijing’s thawed relationship with the United States “enhanced the overall atmosphere tremendously, reinforcing the feeling that China was now turning the page on the Maoist path and turning onto a new path.”

If Mao’s China can turn onto “a new path,” then why not Castro’s Cuba? That’s exactly the point made by Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who shares Rubio’s presidential aspirations.

“The supporters of the embargo against Cuba speak with heated passion but fall strangely silent when asked how trade with Cuba is so different than trade with Russia or China or Vietnam,” he wrote in Time. “It is an inconsistent and incoherent position to support trade with other communist countries but not communist Cuba.”

“Inconsistent and incoherent” is exactly right. The difference is that none of those other countries had a cluster of exiles wielding political power in a key state and exerting a chokehold on American policy.

It’s time for that chokehold to end, and for a new era to begin.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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