Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on Friday lambasted the Washington Post for an article claiming that he "embellished" the facts of his parents' emigration to the U.S..
The story, published Thursday, alleged that Rubio, a freshman lawmaker widely considered a potential vice-presidential prospect in 2012, falsely portrays his parents as exiles driven from their native Cuba when Fidel Castro came to power. The Post cites Rubio's public statements and the official biography on his Senate Web site as evidence.
Does it matter if Rubio's parents weren't exiled from Cuba?
For those unfamiliar with Florida politics, it may not. But in Rubio's home state, Cuban Americans are a powerful voting bloc for the Republican Party and they traditionally have judged a politician's bona fides by the degree of his or her opposition to Castro. And a Cuban-American candidate who emerges from the Cuban exile community, which is concentrated in South Florida, often can have a formidable advantage in some local and state elections.
Rubio, 40, was born in Miami. In addition to the buzz about him as a possible veep candidate, he's often mentioned as an eventual presidential candidate — which is how the discrepancy about his parents surfaced this week. The St. Petersburg Times reported Wednesday that his parents' naturalization documents were first released by a so-called birther activist who claimed Rubio isn't eligible to run for president under Article 2 of the Constitution because he wasn't born to U.S. citizens.
The Post story notes that Rubio has recited his family history to great political effect during his rapid climb to political fame:
During his rise to political prominence, Sen. Marco Rubio frequently repeated a compelling version of his family's history that had special resonance in South Florida. He was the "son of exiles," he told audiences, Cuban Americans forced off their beloved island after "a thug," Fidel Castro, took power.
In fact, the Post reported, Rubio's parents came to the U.S. in 1956, well before Castro took power in 1959.
On Friday, Rubio went on the counterattack. An excerpt of a statement issued by his Senate office:
To suggest my family's story is embellished for political gain is outrageous. The dates I have given regarding my family's history have always been based on my parents' recollections of events that occurred over 55 years ago and which were relayed to me by them more than two decades after they happened. I was not made aware of the exact dates until very recently.
What's important is that the essential facts of my family's story are completely accurate. My parents are from Cuba. After arriving in the United States, they had always hoped to one day return to Cuba if things improved and traveled there several times. ...
They were exiled from the home country they tried to return to because they did not want to live under communism. That is an undisputed fact and to suggest otherwise is outrageous.
The senator also wrote an op-ed column for Politico that goes further:
That is an outrageous allegation that is not only incorrect, but an insult to the sacrifices my parents made to provide a better life for their children. They claim I did this because "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."
If The Washington Post wants to criticize me for getting a few dates wrong, I accept that. But to call into question the central and defining event of my parents' young lives — the fact that a brutal communist dictator took control of their homeland and they were never able to return — is something I will not tolerate.
The Miami Herald's Naked Politics blog also pushed back on the Washington Post's coverage, noting that the Post piece doesn't cite one speech to back up its allegation that Rubio "told audiences, Cuban Americans forced off their beloved island after 'a thug,' Fidel Castro, took power."
Rubio might not have appreciated some of The Herald's defense, however:
Rubio's inability to remember these specific dates isn't much of a surprise. Rubio is sometimes sloppy. When he was in the Florida House, he failed to disclose a loan at one point and fill out his financial disclosures properly. He rung up a host of personal and questionable expenses on a Republican Party of Florida credit card and couldn't show how they furthered party business.
The Post stood by its story Friday, and the reporter who wrote the piece, Manuel Roig-Franzia, talked to All Things Considered co-host Robert Siegel about the significance of being a Cuban exile:
It means a lot to people in southern Florida. It can confer legitimacy to someone if they came after the revolution. ...In some cases, people who came before the revolution — in some cases — they are viewed with suspicion that they might be sympathizers with Batista, the previous leader, or at least not anti-Castro.
What the Post story doesn't address is a central truth to which Rubio alluded in his statement, and one that's well known among Florida reporters: The majority of Cuban Americans in Florida don't define an exile by the date of his or her departure from Cuba, but by their inability to return due to the Castro regime.