Democracia y Política

Marco Rubio Is Hardly a Hero in Cuba. He Likes That.

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CABAIGUÁN, Cuba — In the lush countryside and teeming city neighborhoods where Senator Marco Rubio’s family cut sugar cane, toiled in tobacco mills and scraped by to make a better life for their children, the first Cuban-American to have a plausible chance to become president of the United States is the island’s least favorite son.

“If Marco Rubio becomes president, we’re done for,” said Héctor Montiel, 66, offering a vigorous thumbs-down as he sat on the Havana street where Mr. Rubio’s father grew up. “He’s against Cuba in every possible way. Hillary Clinton understands much more the case of Cuba. Rubio and these Republicans, they are still stuck in 1959.”

Resistance to Fidel Castro’s Communist government has served as the foundation of Mr. Rubio’s personal and political identity. A Florida Republican who has been identified in the state-controlled newspaper here as a “representative in the Senate of the Cuban-American terrorist mafia,” he has argued for years that normalized relations with the United States would only strengthen an oppressive Cuban government that impoverishes its people, limits access to information and violates human rights.


Marco Rubio’s parents, Mario and Oriales, center, on their wedding day in Havana in 1949Credit via Marco Rubio

That did not change in the months leading up to Wednesday’s announcement that the United States and Cuba will reopen embassies in each other’s capitals, a critical step in ending a devastating half-century embargo. Signs on the road here read “Blockade: The Worst Genocide in History,” punctuated with a noose.

As Mr. Rubio has intensified his opposition, Cubans have begun to view him as the most prominent of American hangmen.

“He wants to kill us!” Alain Marcelo, 46, said as he sat on a porch next to a grazing horse and a shack scrawled with yellow “Viva Fidel y Raúl” graffiti in Jicotea, the no-streetlight town where Mr. Rubio’s great-grandparents arrived from Spain to farm sugar cane in the late 19th century. “He’s our enemy!”

The object of these attacks said it was “sad” that the Cuban government had created the impression that he wanted “to starve the Cuban people.” But for Mr. Rubio, the demonizing is only proof of the “information blockade that the people in Cuba are facing” and further justification for his opposition to President Obama’s opening to the government of Raúl Castro.

“I’m glad they see us as a threat,” Mr. Rubio said in an interview. “They should.”

He added that it made sense that the Castro government was closely following a presidential candidate whose election would not, to put it mildly, be welcomed. “If that’s the line the Cuban government has taken against me and is trying to indoctrinate their people in that way, it shows that we’re on to something,” he said.

Cuban government officials claim disinterest when asked about American presidential candidates, but Mr. Rubio clearly strikes a nerve, prompting eye rolling, dramatic rocking-chair rocking and unkind comments.

By contrast, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, the other Cuban-American Republican running for president, hardly registers.

“Never heard of him,” said Yadira Suárez, 34, in one typical response as she stood in the city of Matanzas, where Mr. Cruz’s father was born and raised.

And for all of Jeb Bush’s closeness to the Cuban-American community of Florida, people here think he is either his father or his brother, caricatured in the Museum of the Revolution as Caesar and a Nazi storm trooper holding a book upside down.

Mr. Rubio has never been to Cuba, but it has loomed large in his personal and professional life, sometimes exaggeratedly so. As he ascended in Florida politics, he often told audiences that he was the “son of exiles,” who left an island governed by a “thug” in Fidel Castro. But in 2011, The Washington Post reported that the senator’s parents and grandfather had arrived in the United States in 1956, before Mr. Castro’s revolution seized power in 1959, and had returned in the following months only for visits. The revelation has done little to diminish Mr. Rubio’s stature as his party’s leading voice on Cuba.

With the exception of some second cousins here who tried to reach out in a brief moment when they had access to Facebook, his understanding about his family’s life has come mostly from his mother, now 85. Mr. Rubio, 44, said the island had been a place that “exists in your imagination.” But he hopes to visit when Cuba is truly free and imagines “a lot of places that are still there and that look not much different than when my parents lived there.”


Marco Rubio with family including his parents, Mario, right, and Oriales, left, when he signed documents in Miami to open his candidacy for the Senate in 2010. Credit Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The first of those places is Jicotea, where his great-grandparents first settled to farm sugar cane along with their 17 children and where teenagers still cut slabs of meat with machetes for workers returning from the fields.

About 160 miles east of Havana on a road where horse-drawn carriages outfitted with tractor wheels inch past walls covered with Raúl Castro slogans (“Orden, Disciplina y Exigencia”), Jicotea is, according to Mr. Rubio, “not even a town.”

His grandfather Pedro Víctor García, who was stricken at a young age with polio and so turned to his studies, left Jicotea’s fields for a career in the railroad business, which took him farther east to Cabaiguán. Here, he met his wife and raised a family that included Mr. Rubio’s mother, Oriales García.

A few streets away from Cabaiguán’s leafy promenade, a donkey pulled a wagon of preschoolers past the tobacco mill where Mr. Rubio’s grandfather, further hobbled by a bus accident and let go by his railroad company, read newspapers and novels to entertain cigar rollers, becoming the “skillful storyteller” who became the skillful politician’s hero.

José López Díaz, 81, who lives across the street from the splintered mill, remembered Mr. Garcia reading to workers. Mr. Díaz scratched a sunken chest with hands liver-spotted to the color of tobacco leaves and expressed astonishment at the “storybook” quality of the possibility that a grandson of a fellow millworker could become president of the United States.

The problem, interjected his son, José Filipe López Oramas, 53, was that the storybook had an unhappy ending because Mr. Rubio opposed the lifting of an embargo that had made their lives miserable.

In 1940, Mr. Rubio’s grandparents left Cabaiguán, taking his mother and other siblings to join some of her older sisters in Havana. The family moved into a housing project, and Mr. Rubio’s mother eventually found a job as a cashier at a low-cost wholesaler known as Casa de los Tres Kilos.

The store is still there, though with a different name. Around the corner, in the back of a ramshackle building with potted malanga plants, Antonio Freijo, 95, recalled his crush on the checkout girl (“very elegant, chestnut hair”). He was astonished to learn that the girl he remembers could become the mother of an American president.

“If not the president,” he said, “at least a mayor!”

Mr. Rubio’s mother met her husband, Mario Rubio, in the shop. He was the store’s security guard. Poor and sleeping in the adjacent warehouse, the father of the future senator grew up on Tenerife Street in the working-class Havana neighborhood of Cerro, where his parents made a living delivering food to the workers in a nearby tobacco factory.

Today, the factory is an abandoned shell except for a few families squatting in the attic. The street is filled with fruit vendors, Santeria worshipers dressed in white and children playing under run-down pastel buildings and a canopy of telephone wires. The street’s oldest inhabitants vaguely remember a Rubio family that once lived there. Others just had opinions about its scion.

“With where we are at right now in the diplomatic discussions,” Mr. Montiel, who lives on Tenerife Street, said, “Rubio is the one who is living in the last century.”

Mr. Rubio said that he believed that many people in Cuba were scared to utter anything other than the party line, and that such anger was to be expected in a country dominated by government-controlled media.

“They don’t have any access to alternative methods of communication; they don’t get my press releases,” he said. “It’s not a coincidence that every single person has the same opinion?”

The uniformity of opinion that Mr. Rubio accurately describes may owe something to Granma, an eight-page state-controlled tabloid that is the country’s leading paper. Mr. Montiel, for instance, gestured at the newspaper spread open on his lap and said, “I’m informed.” He then pointed to an article linking the C.I.A. to a notorious Cuban-American extremist suspected of blowing up a Cuban airplane filled with passengers in 1976. “Bad, bad, bad,” he said.

Granma is named after the small yacht that Fidel Castro and other revolutionaries took back to Cuba in 1956, the same year that Mr. Rubio’s family left for the United States. The boat itself was named in honor of someone’s grandma.

A wall-size mural of the ship floating upon jungle treetops adorns the paper’s lobby near Revolutionary Square in Havana.

Upstairs, Delfín Xiques, who runs the paper’s archives, showed off prized photo negatives of Che Guevara and a wall of wooden card catalogs containing all their photo negatives. Asked if there was a file for Mr. Rubio, Mr. Xiques shook his head. He said the paper was only now beginning to pay attention to him, though not too much attention.

“We don’t like to cover him a lot,” said Mr. Xiques, suggesting it did not make much sense to print the “propaganda” of the anti-Castro senator. “It’s his own stupidity we would be publishing.”

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