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Rubio Gives Harkin a Lesson in History

Foreign affairs, when not involving American troops, are rarely prioritized by the public. But there are domestic issues that carry very strong foreign-policy implications as well as benefit those with broad knowledge about the world, such as immigration. A coherent foreign-policy outlook on the part of leading politicians also tells us much about the way they view America, and thus its place in the world.

The two–why people come to America, and why America goes out into the world–are often related. That helps explain Marco Rubio’s appeal to conservatives, and yesterday he offered a reminder, in the form of a fifteen-minute floor speech shaming those who accepted and regurgitated mindless and stale propaganda in defense of Cuban tyranny. Specifically, he took aim at Iowa Senator Tom Harkin–chair of the Senate’s committee on health, education, labor, and pensions–who gushed Michael Moore-like about Cuba’s health-care system.

Over at the Miami Herald, Marc Caputo set the scene and noted that although the subject was socialist totalitarian repression, this was no dated conversation:

Rubio’s speech was about current events: the protests in Venezuela, the Maduro government and the ties it has with the Castros, who repress their own people and helped inspire the suppression in Caracas.

Venezuela is becoming the new Cuba.

For 14 minutes and 16 seconds, Rubio gave the best oration of his political career, speaking largely off the top of his head and with only the barest of notes. Rubio sometimes dripped with sarcasm or simmered with indignation as he made the case to Congress that the United States needs to continue Cuba sanctions and punish Venezuela.

Indeed, Rubio came alive during the speech, and though the text doesn’t do the speech justice (Caputo has the video, which is also worth watching), here is the opening of Rubio’s response to Harkin:

A few moments ago, the body was treated to a report from the senator from Iowa about his recent trip to Cuba. Sounded like he had a wonderful trip visiting, what he described as, a real paradise. He bragged about a number of things that he learned on his trip to Cuba that I’d like to address briefly. He bragged about their health care system, medical school is free, doctors are free, clinics are free, their infant mortality rate may be even lower than ours. I wonder if the senator, however, was informed, number one, that the infant mortality rate of Cuba is completely calculated on figures provided by the Cuban government. And, by the way, totalitarian communist regimes don’t have the best history of accurately reporting things. I wonder if he was informed that before Castro, Cuba, by the way, was 13th in the whole world in infant mortality. I wonder if the government officials who hosted him, informed him that in Cuba there are instances reported, including by defectors, that if a child only lives a few hours after birth, they’re not counted as a person who ever lived and therefore don’t count against the mortality rate.

I wonder if our visitors to Cuba were informed that in Cuba, any time there is any sort of problem with the child in utero they are strongly encouraged to undergo abortions, and that’s why they have an abortion rate that skyrockets, and some say, is perhaps the highest the world. I heard him also talk about these great doctors that they have in Cuba. I have no doubt they’re very talented. I’ve met a bunch of them. You know where I met them? In the United States because they defected. Because in Cuba, doctors would rather drive a taxi cab or work in a hotel than be a doctor. I wonder if they spoke to him about the outbreak of cholera that they’ve been unable to control, or about the three-tiered system of health care that exists where foreigners and government officials get health care much better than that that’s available to the general population….

I heard about their wonderful literacy rate, how everyone in Cuba knows how to read. That’s fantastic. Here’s the problem: they can only read censored stuff. They’re not allowed access to the Internet. The only newspapers they’re allowed to read are Granma or the ones produced by the government.

Then he set his sights on Venezuela:

It is shameful that many members of Congress who traveled to Venezuela and were friendly with Chavez, some even went to his funeral, sit by saying nothing while this is happening in our own hemisphere. And this wonderful Cuban paradise government that we heard about? This is what they support. Just this morning, the dictator that calls himself a president — never been elected to anything, Raul Castro — announced he is there for whatever they need to help them do this. 

I listen to this stuff about Cuba and I listen to what’s happening in Venezuela, they’re very similar. Not just in the repression part, but the economics part. You know Venezuela’s an oil-rich country with hardworking people? They have a shortage — we don’t have an embargo against Venezuela. They have a shortage of toilet paper and tooth paste. Why? Because they are incompetent. Because communism doesn’t work. They look more and more like Cuba economically and politically every single day. 

Rubio showed pictures of the victims of Venezuela’s government crackdown, humanized them, and put the Venezuelan authorities on notice he would soon be outlining sanctions and other responses the United States government can take, setting Venezuela alongside Iran, North Korea, and, yes, Cuba.

There’s something amazing about having this conversation in 2014. There is of course a full discussion to be had on the virtues and effects of embargoes and sanctions. But you can detect a note of disbelief at the opening of Rubio’s response, before the intensity sheds it. Are there still those in the United States Congress so easily fooled by totalitarian propaganda? Yes, there are, apparently.

And that’s an important point. We’re not talking about the Sean Penns of the world. We’re talking about a five-term U.S. senator. Hopefully Harkin learned something from Rubio’s speech, though I doubt it. I imagine, however, many Americans learned something about Tom Harkin.



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