For Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the Republicans’ great Hispanic hope and possible vice-presidential pick in 2012, the story he repeatedly told of his parents’ flight from Communist Cuba helped fuel his rise as a Tea Party favourite in 2010.
But the story, it turns out, was not true – at least, not as Mr. Rubio told it ad nauseam on the campaign trail and in the biography posted on his Senate web site.
Rather than being the son of “exiles” who fled Cuba after the Revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959, Mr. Rubio’s parents first came to United States in 1956 when the U.S.-backed regime of Fulgencio Batista controlled the island nation.
The revelation, unearthed nearly simultaneously by The St. Petersburg Times and The Washington Post, has raised unsettling questions about whether Mr. Rubio knowingly embellished his family narrative to dovetail with his free-market political ideology and curry favour with the powerful anti-Castro forces in Florida politics.
Mr. Rubio, 40, calls such allegations “outrageous,” saying he was simply mistaken about the date of his parents’ departure. Besides, he still insists his parents were exiles, since they tried to return to Cuba in 1961, but were put off by communism.
“So in late March 1961, just weeks before the Bay of Pigs invasion, my mother and siblings left Cuba and my family settled permanently in the United States…Soon after, Castro officially declared Cuba a Marxist state. My family has never been able to return,” Mr. Rubio said in an email sent to supporters last Friday. “I am the son of immigrants and exiles, raised by people who know all too well that you can lose your country.”
The Post article that broke the story, however, suggested voters might have viewed Mr. Rubio much differently had they know the whole truth in 2010.
“In Florida, being connected to the post-revolution exile community gives a politician cache that could never be achieved by someone identified with the pre-Castro exodus, a group sometimes viewed with suspicion,” journalist Manuel Roig-Franzia wrote.
The controversy is not the first in recent weeks to hit Mr. Rubio, who had had a charmed political career up until now.
Earlier this month, his brother-in-law’s 1989 conviction for marijuana and cocaine trafficking was at the centre of an apparent move by Spanish-language network Univision to suppress the story in exchange for an exclusive interview with Mr. Rubio.
While neither controversy appears serious enough to derail Mr. Rubio’s political career, both could hurt his chances of earning a spot on the GOP ticket in 2012, since Democrats would be sure use the incidents to attack Mr. Rubio’s credibility.
Suddenly, the Golden Boy of Florida GOP politics is looking a bit tarnished.
It is an unexpected turn of events for a politician who was the youngest person and first Hispanic to become Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives in 2006.
In 2010, Mr. Rubio’s insurgent Tea Party-backed campaign for the GOP Senate nomination in Florida led his rival in that race, then-governor Charlie Crist, to quit the Republican Party to run as an independent. Mr. Rubio sailed to victory over both Mr. Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek in the general election last November.
A supporter of Mitt Romney when he ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, Mr. Rubio’s name has been one of a handful consistently at the top of the list of potential vice-presidential running mates should the former Massachusetts governor get the GOP nod in 2012.
In addition to being able to woo Hispanic voters, a big part of Mr. Rubio’s attraction has been his compelling personal narrative as the son of exiles who fled communist Cuba for freedom and upward mobility in capitalist America.
Now, however, that claim comes with a big asterisk attached to it.