POLITICS

Rubio, Christie take issue with Pope Francis' push for normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations

Pope Francis arrives for Mass at Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. Pope Francis opens his first full day in Cuba on Sunday with what normally would be the culminating highlight of a papal visit: Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in Havana's Revolution Plaza. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

Pope Francis arrives for Mass at Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. Pope Francis opens his first full day in Cuba on Sunday with what normally would be the culminating highlight of a papal visit: Mass before hundreds of thousands of people in Havana's Revolution Plaza. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

They grew up in very different parts of the country and have very different backgrounds, but on Sunday, two opponents for the Republican Party presidential nomination could agree on one thing: Pope Francis should not meddle in political matters involving Cuba.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has longtime close ties to the large Cuban exile community in his state, took issue Sunday with Francis’ efforts to move forward the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican from Florida, reiterated his disagreement with the Pope over restoring relations, and said he hoped the pope should have met with dissidents while in Cuba.

The Vatican, in fact, did invite dissidents to see the pope, but they were arrested by Cuban security agents, according to published reports and social media posts by other dissidents on the island.

“I just think the pope was wrong,” Christie told Jake Tapper, host of “State of the Union” on CNN. “The fact is that his infallibility is on religious matters, not on political ones.”

Christie said it was wrong to take an amicable approach with the Cuban government while, for instance, it continues to give refuge to JoAnne Chesimard, who killed a New Jersey state trooper in the 1970s. She was convicted but escaped and fled to Cuba, which has given her and other U.S. fugitives sanctuary.

“That this president could extend diplomatic relations with that country without getting her returned so she can serve the prison sentence that she was sentenced to by a jury of her peers in New Jersey is outrageous,” Christie said. “And so I just happen to disagree with the pope on this one.”

Francis, who is on a historic visit to Cuba through Tuesday, played a pivotal role in the renewed diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba that President Barack Obama announced in December.

The Vatican had served as a meeting place for secret talks between Cuban and U.S. officials, and the pope directly appealed to Obama and to President Raúl Castro by letter, urging them to "resolve humanitarian questions of common interest” and vowing to “assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the well-being of their respective citizens.”

The pope’s direct involvement also led to the release of U.S. contractor Alan Gross after he spent five years in a Cuban jail.

“The fact is that, for me, I just believe that when you have a government that is harboring fugitives ... like Joanne Chesimard," Christie said, "who murdered a state policeman in New Jersey in cold blood, was broken out of prison and has been harbored for the last 40-plus years by a Cuban government that has paid her and held up her as a hero, that this president could extend diplomatic relations with that country without getting her returned so she can serve the prison sentence that she was sentenced to by a jury of her peers in New Jersey is outrageous."

Rubio has been a vocal opponent of normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba, saying that it benefits the Castro regime more than it does the U.S.

He, like many Republicans, said the U.S. should not have eased trade and travel restrictions as long as Cuba continues to oppress people on the island and fails to hold real elections.

In an opinion piece in CNN.com, Rubio wrote, “In Cuba, His Holiness won't find a government that protects its people and their God-given rights. Instead, he will find a regime that oppresses people and hinders progress, both socially and politically. He will meet with a regime that is solely responsible for the Cuban people's plight over the past 56 years.”

“My hope,” Rubio continued, “is that the pope's visit to Cuba will remind all the Cuban citizens that they possess dignity and fundamental rights that come from God and that the Castro regime has no claim on changing what is 100 percent God-given.”

He added, “I pray the pope can use his moral authority to inspire true religious freedom and bring us closer to the day when freedom can finally take root on the island country – because only then will the people of Cuba prosper and have the opportunity to live out God's plan.”

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