(WASHINGTON) — One senator’s joke about battling Cuban communism with American college kids on spring break led to an outraged verbal smackdown from another senator Thursday.
The setting was Sen. John Kerry’s confirmation hearing as President Obama’s nominee to be secretary of state. The joker was Sen. Jeff Flake, the newly elected Republican from Arizona:
“Let me just mention one item briefly and then ask a few questions. With regard to Cuba, I’ve felt, perhaps differently than some of my colleagues on this panel, that the best way to foster change and progress toward democracy is to allow travel, free travel of Americans, to let them go as they wish. I don’t think that that’s a weakness or any capitulation at all. I think it’s a — it’s a way to show strength. In fact, I’ve often felt that if we want a real get-tough policy with the Castro brothers, we should force them to deal with spring break once or twice. (Laughter.)
“But — (chuckles) — but in all seriousness, this president has taken measures to allow more Americans to travel freely, relatives travel for religious or cultural, education purposes. I think that’s a good thing. I hope that you’ll find ways to continue that and continue more innovative approaches to deal with change there.”
Funny, right? Because he’s suggesting that coeds in bikinis could accomplish what more than a half-century of American travel restrictions and boycotts could not.
While the 1962 travel embargo remains in effect, in 2011 president rolled back some travel restrictions, in place since 2003, to allow students and religious groups to visit Cuba and to allow charter flights to the island to depart from all U.S. airports. The new guidelines also allow Americans to send up to $500 per quarter to non-family members in the Communist country.
Not everybody thought Flake’s joke was funny. Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democrat from New Jersey and the son of Cuban immigrants who stands to take over as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee if Kerry leaves, closed the hearing with some harsh words for Flake:
“I had no intention of raising it, but, you know, to suggest that spring break is a form of — a form of torture to the Castro regime — unfortunately, they are experts about torture, as is evidenced by the increasing brutal crackdown on peaceful democracy advocates on the island just in the last year, over 6,600 peaceful democracy advocates detained or arrested.
“Just this past Sunday, the Ladies in White, a group of women who dress in white and march every Sunday with a gladiolus to church, tried to come together to go to church this past Sunday. And the result of that — these are individuals who are the relatives of former or current political prisoners in Castro’s jails — the result is that more than 35 of the Women in White were intercepted, beaten with belts, threatened to death by agents aiming guns at them and temporarily arrested.
“And then we have a United States citizen who all he tried to do is give access to the Internet to a small Jewish population in Havana and has been languishing in jail for nearly four years. That’s real torture.”
Not mentioning Cuba? Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Repubican whose parents immigrated to the United States from Cuba in 1956 just before Castro returned to the country. Rubio focused his questioning of Kerry on North Korea, Syria, the Middle East and China.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Paul Cruickshank and Michael Pearson, CNN