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Marco Rubio Challenges Obama Administration's New Approach To Cuba

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A Cuban-American lawmaker from Florida who is now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee is railing against what he calls U.S. concessions to Cuba. He's especially concerned about plans to reopen the U.S. Embassy in Havana. The Obama administration argues that a U.S. embassy is not a giveaway to Cuba, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Reopening embassies was supposed to be the easy part of this U.S.-Cuba thaw - the first step toward more normal ties. But Cuba's lead negotiator now says her country wants U.S. diplomats to scale back support for dissidents, and Florida Republican Marco Rubio seized on those comments as he questioned Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson.

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ROBERTA JACOBSON: Sometimes things are said in public that are not necessarily a position in private, and I don't know that they have made that a condition yet. You would have to ask them.

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: But in fact that is their position in public today, is it not?

JACOBSON: I saw what she said in public, but what I'm saying is we could not...

RUBIO: But in practice that's their condition.

JACOBSON: ...accept not meeting with democracy activists and with the broadest swath of Cubans possible. That's the point of this policy.

KELEMEN: Rubio has argued that the U.S. got a bad deal after a year and a half of secret negotiations with Cuba. He says he wanted to hear from the two White House officials involved in that, but the Obama administration refused, sending, instead, Jacobson who acknowledges that she was brought into the discussions on policy changes only toward the end.

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JACOBSON: Probably about a couple of months before they were announced.

RUBIO: In the two months that you knew about it, were you involved in the negotiations?

JACOBSON: I was not.

KELEMEN: Nor was the other witness sent to his hearing on Cuba, the State Department's top human rights official, Tom Malinowski. But like Jacobson, Malinowski says he thinks the Obama administration's new approach will eventually pay off when it comes to promoting change on the communist island.

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TOM MALINOWSKI: With the strong caveat that we have no illusions about this - this is going to be hard. Change comes by empowering people to demand change. It comes by making the Cuban people less dependent on the Cuban state.

KELEMEN: Malinowski says, while the Cuban government released 53 political prisoners as part of the warming ties, it is still carrying out temporary detentions - 140, he says, in the month of January.

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MALINOWSKI: The nature of the Cuban regime has not changed, and we have not claimed so.

KELEMEN: Critics of the Obama administration's policy, including Democrat Robert Menendez, point out that this kind of approach hasn't worked with China for decades. Malinowski says his native Poland would be a better example of where the U.S. helped promote reform. The Cuban dissidents who came to the Senate hearing are making clear they plan to keep up their fight.

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ROSA MARIA PAYA: We, the Cubans, are not the Chinese. We are not Vietnamese.

KELEMEN: That's Rosa Maria Paya, daughter of Oswaldo Paya, who died in a suspicious car accident in 2012. She wants the U.S. negotiators to demand from Cuba an independent investigation.

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PAYA: And that we hear publicly what response is given to this point.

KELEMEN: She says any real engagement with Cuba must include civil society. That was echoed by Berta Soler of the Ladies in White, female relatives of political prisoners.

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BERTA SOLER: (Through interpreter) The government of Cuba is not sovereign because it was not elected. It's the people who are the owners or the possessors of the sovereignty of the nation. And so it's very important that we, the people, be listened to and heard during this process.

KELEMEN: State Department officials say their diplomats are listening to dissidents. There are just under 70 Americans working at the U.S. Interest Section in Havana now. Once that becomes an embassy, the U.S. hopes to have more diplomats and the freedom to travel. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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