A Cuban couple’s journey to America more than 50 years ago became a media firestorm this week when their son, Sen. Marco Rubio, was challenged about whether he misused the story of their immigration and exile experience to promote his successful political career.
A Republican, Rubio acknowledged making a mistake on his official Senate website, which inaccurately said his parents “came to America following Fidel Castro’s takeover” in 1959. His family actually came initially in 1956.
The Washington Post late Thursday accused him of repeatedly and publicly embellishing his parents’ story for political gain.
Rubio said the Post story was “outrageous” and left a false impression.
“I didn’t lie about the date. I wasn’t aware of it,” Rubio told The Miami Herald, noting his parents’ immigration from Cuba happened a half century ago and that he was basing his story on a family oral history.
“It’s irrelevant to the central narrative,” he said. “The date doesn’t really add anything. It doesn’t embellish anything. The date is less relevant than the experience, the experience of people who came here to make a better life and who could never go back.”
On Friday, Rubio penned a written response to the Post article that was published on Politico, the national political website.
The controversy took on a life of its own in the nation’s political echo chamber as the left and right picked sides over whether the vice presidential short-lister was a liar or a victim.
Beyond the typical conservative-liberal feud, the issue became a point of departure over immigration and just what constitutes a political “exile.” It also served as a stark reminder that any politician seeking higher office will have every word parsed in a nonstop news cycle fueled by blogs, Twitter and YouTube.
The political ruckus also put the heat on The Washington Post because the story --inspired by documents from a birther activist who claims Rubio can’t be vice president -- became the subject of criticism among several national media outlets.
The first paragraph of the Washington Post report suggested Rubio himself said “he was the son of exiles, he told audiences, Cuban Americans forced off their beloved island after ’a thug,’ Fidel Castro, took power.”
However, the story didn’t cite any speech in which Rubio actually made the remark.
To back up the allegation, the Post took excerpts from a 2006 address in the Florida House where Rubio said “in January of 1959 a thug named Fidel Castro took power in Cuba and countless Cubans were forced to flee. ... Today your children and grandchildren are the secretary of commerce of the United States and multiple members of Congress ...and soon, even speaker of the Florida House.”
In the speech, Rubio didn’t say that his parents fled the island nation and he wasn’t referring to just those who specifically fled Cuba after Castro took power. Instead, he specifically said he was talking about “a community of exiles.” That is: He was talking about all the Cubans who live in Miami.
Regardless of when his parents left Cuba, they were exiles because they stayed in the United States, specifically Miami, in a community where they soon felt they couldn’t go back to their homeland.
But some liberal activists suggest that, since his parents didn’t specifically flee after Castro took power, Rubio isn’t the son of exiles. The Democratic group, American Bridge 21st Century, released a Web ad that highlighted the Washington Post story. The ad repeatedly featured Rubio saying he was the son of exiles, as if it weren’t true.
Andy S. Gomez, a Cuban-American Democrat and Senior Fellow at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban & Cuban-American Studies, took the Washington Post to task. Specifically, Gomez zeroed in on the claim that “being connected to the post-revolution exile community gives a politician cachet that could never be achieved by someone identified with the pre-Castro exodus, a group sometimes viewed with suspicion.”
Gomez said this was false.
“I have spent my career studying the Cuban exile community and can say with authority that no distinction is made within the exile community between those who arrived in the years leading up to the revolution, and those who came after,” Gomez said in a written statement. “They all share the painful heritage of not being able to return home. It’s no wonder The Washington Post made this claim without a single bit of proof to back it up. Because it doesn’t exist.”
In his interview with The Miami Herald, Rubio said what unites exiles is the pain of being unable to go home.
“The exile experience was painful,” he said. “The inability of my dad to take me to the place he used to play baseball. He was never able to see his two brothers before they died. My mom was never able to take us to the place where she met my dad, or where they got married. The things that people do with their kids they were never able to do because the place was off limits to them. It was just a deep part of their psyche. They couldn’t believe Cuba had become a Communist country. Never in their wildest nightmares did they think it would become part of the Soviet bloc or that the revolution would outlive my dad.”
In an interview with the Herald last month, Rubio couldn’t remember the exact date of his parents departure from Cuba. But he clearly stated they came over before the Castro revolution. But, as evidenced by the inaccuracy of his Senate bio, Rubio hasn’t been aggressive in clarifying when exactly his parents came over to the United States.