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Cuban-American senators blast Obama's decision to swap Cuban spies for American aide worker

Cuban-American senators from opposing political parties both had harsh words Wednesday for President Barack Obama's decision to trade three convicted Cuban spies for an American held prisoner in Cuba for the last five years.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), whose parents emigrated from Cuba, blasted Obama for being "the worst negotiator that we've had as president… maybe in the modern history of the country." Rubio made those comments on Fox News.

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 11.33.34 AM Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) both blasted President Obama's decision to swap prisoners with Cuba and ease sanctions against the island nation.
Images: AP Photos/Molly Riley and Julio Cortez

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), another son of Cuban immigrants, said Obama set a dangerous precedent by trading three convicted Cuban spies for one U.S. aid worker.

"President Obama's actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government," Menendez said. "There is no equivalence between an international aid worker and convicted spies who were found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage against our nation."

The administration told reporters Wednesday morning that it agreed to give back three Cuban spies who were convicted in 2011. In return, Cuba released Alan Gross, an aid worker held by Cuba since 2009, plus another U.S. intelligence official.

But Rubio said the swap amounted to Obama's latest effort to coddle dictators.

"They've created no economic openings, no concessions on freedom of speech, no concessions on elections, no alternative political parties," Rubio said of Cuba. "The idea that this leads to democratic opening is absurd, but it is par for the course for an administration possibly giving away unilateral concessions for Iran or Cuba in exchange for nothing."

Comments from Rubio and Menendez are similar to those other members of Congress made when Obama agreed to swap three Guantanamo Bay detainees for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who many said deserted his post. At the time, many said that exchange showed Obama was more interested in emptying Guantanamo Bay than structuring equivalent prisoner exchanges.

Regarding the new swap, Menendez noted that one of the Cuban spies released by Obama was convicted for his role in the shoot-down of two U.S. civilian planes in 1996, which killed Americans. But he also said the move gives leverage to countries by letting them take innocent Americans hostage in the hopes of swapping them for their spies.

"It invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips," he said. "I fear that today's actions will put at risk the thousands of Americans that work overseas to support civil society, advocate for access to information, provide humanitarian services, and promote democratic reforms."

"This asymmetrical trade will invite further belligerence toward Cuba's opposition movement and the hardening of the government's dictatorial hold on its people," he said. "Let us all remind ourselves that an untold number of ordinary people yearning for democracy remain imprisoned by the exact same tormentors that have punished Alan Gross and they, along with all Cubans, deserve a free and liberated Cuba."

Obama was scheduled to talk about his prisoner exchange with Cuba Wednesday at noon, as well as his plans to reach out to Cuba diplomatically and economically — moves that are already raising questions about how he should proceed.

But Obama's move was also being welcomed by other senators who flew back from Cuba with Gross. Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) joined Gross on his return trip, along with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

"Those who cling to a failed policy that did nothing to help Alan Gross, and who may oppose the president's actions, have nothing to offer but more of the same," Leahy said. "That would serve neither the interests of the United States and its people, nor of the Cuban people. It is time for a change."

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