In this Nov. 2, 2010 file photo, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) speaks after winning… (Lynne Sladky/AP )
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.
But a review of documents — including naturalization papers and other official records — reveals that the Florida Republican’s account embellishes the facts. The documents show that Rubio’s parents came to the United States and were admitted for permanent residence more than two-and-a-half years before Castro’s forces overthrew the Cuban government and took power on New Year’s Day 1959.
The supposed flight of Rubio’s parents has been at the core of the young senator’s political identity, both before and after his stunning tea-party-propelled victory in last year’s Senate election. Rubio — now considered a prospective 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate and a possible future presidential contender — mentions his parents in the second sentence of the official biography on his Senate Web site. It says that Mario and Oriales Rubio “came to America following Fidel Castro’s takeover.” And the 40-year-old senator with the boyish smile and prom-king good looks has drawn on the power of that claim to entrance audiences captivated by the rhetorical skills of one of the more dynamic stump speakers in modern American politics.
The real story of his parents’ migration appears to be a more conventional immigrant narrative, a couple who came to the United States seeking a better life. In the year they arrived in Florida, the future Marxist dictator was in Mexico plotting a quixotic return to Cuba.
Rubio’s office confirmed Thursday that his parents arrived in the United States in 1956 but noted that “while they were prepared to live here permanently, they always held out the hope and the option of returning to Cuba if things improved.” They returned to Cuba several times after Castro came to power to “assess the situation with the hope of eventually moving back,” the office said in a statement.
In a brief interview Thursday, Rubio said his accounts have been based on family lore. “I’m going off the oral history of my family,” he said. “All of these documents and passports are not things that I carried around with me.”
He said of his parents: “They were from Cuba. They wanted to live in Cuba again. They tried to live in Cuba again, and the reality of what it was made that impossible.”
In 2006, on the eve of his rise to speaker of the Florida House, Rubio told an audience that “in January of 1959, a thug named Fidel Castro took power in Cuba and countless Cubans were forced to flee and come here, many — most — here to America. When they arrived, they were welcomed by the most compassionate people on all the Earth.”
Wearing a red flower in his lapel, his voice sometimes emotional, he praised those who fled, calling them “a great generation.” But he also assured them: “Today your children and grandchildren are the secretary of commerce of the United States and multiple members of Congress, they are the CEO of Fortune 500 companies and successful entrepreneurs, they are Grammy-winning artists and they are renowned journalists, they are a United States senator and soon, even speaker of the Florida House.”
The speech drew heavy coverage in Florida, as it was a momentous event. Rubio was the first Cuban American to become speaker of the Florida House. In Florida, 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.
When Rubio’s parents left the island, Cuban migration to the United States was a trickle compared with what it would become in the years after Castro’s victory. “The vast majority of people who emigrated in the ’50s went for economic reasons, not for political reasons,” said Maria Cristina Garcia, an expert on Cuban migration at Cornell University.
Multiple documents signed by Rubio’s parents, including their petitions for naturalization, show that Mario and Oriales Rubio arrived in the United States on May 27, 1956, with their son Mario, 6. Maternal grandfather Pedro Victor Garcia also came to the United States around the same time.
Marco Rubio has said that his father left Cuba after enduring hardships, including the loss of his mother when he was young.