Carlos Eire: In Defense of Marco Rubio’s Story of His Family’s Exile

Roundup: Historians' Take

Carlos Eire is the Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University.

If Marco Rubio is chosen as Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential candidate, as many have speculated, we’ll soon learn a lot more about the Florida Senator and young Republican superstar. But we’re also likely to continue hearing about another part of Rubio’s past: whether his family are Cuban exiles or not. Since The Washington Post alleged last fall that Rubio misrepresented facts about his parents’ journey to America—his Senate biography stated that they fled Cuba in 1959 after Fidel Castro came to power, though they had first left in 1956 and returned in 1961—the senator has been maligned as a liar. The media has even called into question his description of himself and his family as exiles rather than commonplace migrants. Unfortunately, this debate reveals less about Rubio than it does about most Americans’ ignorance of Cuban history.

One of the hardest challenges faced by those of us who have lived under tyrants is the task of explaining dictatorships to Americans. The hardest point of all to explain is that a lousy despot can often be succeeded by an even worse monster, and that those who flee from them sometimes become exiles two or three times over. It’s a subject that conventional American wisdom has long reduced to a simplistic and vacuous either/or formula: Surely, no Cuban could hate both Batista and Fidel. This is why so many Americans—even educated journalists—have trouble grasping that it would never occur to most Cuban exiles to quibble over any Cuban’s year of departure from the island.

The truth is this: Marco Rubio’s parents left Cuba during the Batista dictatorship, hoping to someday return to a free and prosperous Cuba. Unfortunately, Fidel Castro proved far worse than his predecessor, so, after a relatively brief and tentative attempt to resettle in post-Batista Cuba, his family realized that their dream could not be fulfilled. Faced with the grim realities of Castrolandia, which they tested out first-hand, they decided to remain in the United States, never ceasing to yearn for their homeland, ever frustrated over the enslavement of their nation....

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