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Barbara Boxer takes Marco Rubio to task about telling Americans where to stay in Cuba

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It’s not often Marco Rubio gets chastised by Barbara Boxer about being anti-business, but when it comes to the volatile issue of Cuba, traditional ideologies seem to collapse.

The exchange between the Florida Republican and California Democrat took place Wednesday morning during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Cuba, where U.S. diplomats are to meet with their Cuban colleagues Thursday. It will be the third such gathering since the two nations announced a diplomatic breakthrough in December.

While questioning Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, Rubio blasted the Obama administration for allowing more U.S. citizens to visit Cuba.

Most of the island’s hotels are owned by the Cuban military and thus, the Castro-led government, he said. “If you stay at a hotel, you are staying in all likelihood in a confiscated property, a land that was taken from a private owner … you are not only putting money in the hands of the Cuban government, you’re trafficking in stolen goods.”

Jacobson said the Cuban state does run a large percentage of those hotels, but said an increasing number of private homes allow guests, such as those with connections to the California-based Airbnb company and other entities. Rubio questioned why the U.S. government doesn’t just promote travel to such homes.

Jacobson said such travel benefits the Cuban people more than the Cuban government, but there aren’t enough private rooms to accommodate American travelers.

California Democrat Barbara Boxer couldn’t resist taking a dig at Rubio for his selective outrage.

“When  you listen to my colleague, you’d think this is the only country in the world that we have relations with, or we’re starting to have relations with, where the state owns hotels,” said the Marin County-based Democrat, in the Senate since 1982. “A lot of my colleagues, maybe all of my colleagues on the Republican side, I can’t be sure, but I think voted to go ahead with a free trade agreement that includes Vietnam, an out-and-out communist country, that pays a minimum wage of 70 cents, that owns all the hotels, trust me. But yet and still, we have relations. And the reason we have relations is for geopolitical reasons. That we want to work to change these places.

“So I think my colleague, with his line of questioning, has really proven the point. Because Russia, a lot of Russian hotels are owned by the country. China. Are we going to start telling people what hotels to stay in in China? And Russia? And Vietnam? And Cuba? Come on! We don’t do that. We’re not an authoritarian country.

“You know, if people choose to stay in an Airbnb, in Cuba, that would make me happy; that’s a San Francisco-based company. I’m very proud, they’re one of the first U.S. businesses to take advantage of a new economic opportunities in Cuba. “

Later in the hearing, Arizona Republican U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, a long-time supporter of liberalizing relations with Cuba, pulled out his iPad, where he said AirBNB shows more than 2,000 separate listings in Cuba. “I’ve often said that if someone is going to limit my travel, it should be communists. That’s what they do. But not our government.”

But New Jersey Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez noted that human rights violations have continued unabated in the country this year, with no noticeable difference arising from the new engagement with the U.S. government.

“President Obama may have outstretched his hand, but the Castros still have their fists real tight.”

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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