FLORIDA - Flanked by Cuban exiles and relatives of killed Cuban dissidents, Sen. Marco Rubio and two Republican House members stepped up criticism Thursday of President Barack Obama's move to re-establish ties with the Castro dictatorship.
Rubio and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart — all Cuban-Americans — argued that economic sanctions against Cuba are the best tool to encourage democracy.
Rubio, who has presidential ambitions, derided the Obama action as naive.
"All of it is premised on the notion that if we open up to Cuba, the United States does more business and more commerce with the island, that somehow from that will spring democracy," Rubio said.
"I wish with my all heart that that was true. But we need to look only around the world to see that it isn't."
Rubio cited economic relationships with other authoritarian regimes — Burma, Vietnam and China — as evidence that lifting economic sanctions doesn't necessarily increase freedom in those nations.
He called China "the best-funded dictatorship in human history," in part because of commerce with the U.S.
Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart said the Republican Congress would seek to maintain economic sanctions.
"There are a lot of questions about the legality of what he says," Ros-Lehtinen said of Obama's action.
She added that she finds it "ironic" that the Cuban revolution was premised on saving the island from the rich. She argued that corporations are poised to benefit most from the opening of economic activity with the U.S.
"We are saying to the Yankee imperialist pigs, come and own a piece of Cuba, we are for sale, and those who have money, come on over because it's a fire sale," Ros-Lehtinen said.
Several relatives of Cuban dissidents and exiles joined the Congress members, holding photos of killed loved ones and wiping away tears while accusing the Obama administration of lying.
"All the sacrifices they made, yesterday it was turned around by weak leadership under President Obama," said Michael Mendez, nephew of Carlos Costa.
Costa was one of four men killed in 1996 when the Cuban military shot down two planes on a humanitarian mission, saying the planes violated their airspace.
One of the Cuban nationals released from prison under Obama's order, Gerardo Hernandez, had been serving two life sentences plus 15 years on a murder conspiracy conviction stemming from shoot-downs.
"Yesterday they did exactly what they claimed they would never do," re-establish ties without significant concessions toward democracy including a free press, Diaz-Balart said.
"It shows a deep level of cynicism to then claim he is doing this to help the Cuban people," he said.