Republican presidential candidates are talking tough about undoing President Obama's move to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba, but Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday they're just blowing hot air.
"I can't imagine another president, Republican or Democrat, just throwing it all out of the window," Kerry said of the steps the U.S. and Cuba have taken - and plan to take - to repair relations. "I just don't see that. I think that people understand that, over 54 years, we had a policy that was isolating us, not changing the world. And I think that what we need to do is recognize that reality."
Kerry was in Cuba to attend the flag-raising ceremony at the new U.S. embassy in Havana, marking the latest step in the gradual thaw that has been taking place between the U.S. and Cuba in recent months. President Obama announced the decision to normalize relations last December, and the U.S. removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism in May. The Cuban flag was hoisted at Cuba's embassy in Washington, D.C. last month.
Critics have assailed the rapprochement, arguing the United States is empowering Cuba's dictatorial Castro regime while setting back the cause of democracy and human rights in Cuba.
President Obama "has ensured the regime will receive international legitimacy and a substantial economic boost to benefit its repression of the Cuban people, which has only increased since the new policy was announced," declared Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential candidate and son of Cuban-American immigrants, in a speech on Friday.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, another GOP White House hopeful, called Kerry's visit to Havana "a birthday present for Fidel Castro." If elected president, Bush promised to "reverse Obama's strategy of accommodation and appeasement."
New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat and Cuban-American who has opposed the thaw in relations, said the U.S. flag raising at the embassy in Havana is " the embodiment of a wrongheaded policy that rewards the Castro regime's brutality at the expense of the Cuban people's right to freedom of expression and independence."
Kerry said Friday that the United States is mindful of concerns about democracy and human rights in Cuba - and that is precisely why opening a U.S. embassy in Havana is so important.
"The resumption of our embassy activities is going to permit the United States to engage the Cuban government much more easily on a regular basis," he explained. "The normalization of relations is not a favor that we do, one nation to the other. It's something that we do together because both of our citizens, we have determined, have the ability to be able to benefit from the relationship."
Kerry said a full U.S. diplomatic presence on the island will enable American policymakers to raise concerns about human rights, the environment, counter-narcotics, maritime safety, and other issues more easily.
"The path to full normalization is not always going to be easy," he said, "but we're confident that the establishment of our embassies is going to make it easier for our diplomats to work on these difficult issues."
Despite the opposition from some quarters, the flag-raising at the U.S. embassy in Havana was welcomed by at least some in Congress.
"Today marks a significant milestone in the restoration of the U.S. - Cuban relationship that is long overdue," declared Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement. "This is a day to mark new beginnings. With the Stars and Stripes proudly waving from atop the U.S. Embassy in Havana, the United States will be in a better position to advance our national interests, engage the Cuban people, and advocate an agenda defined by fundamental freedoms."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, described the day's events as an "historic, breakthrough moment for our engagement and relations with the Cuban people and the entire region." And Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat who's traveling with Kerry on the trip, said, "The re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba and our Embassy in Havana re-opening will help promote human rights and freedom in a country where we have had little influence for too long. I was proud to be there."