THE BLOG
12/19/2014 02:56 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Saudi Arabia Beheads Gays, but Marco Rubio Has No Problem With You Traveling There

Andrew Burton via Getty Images

In about a minute you can book a flight to locales that are home to the most brutal anti-gay regimes in the world, where homosexuality is punishable by flogging, imprisonment (sometimes for life) or execution. I don't just mean Uganda or Brunei, where Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah recently decreed Sharia law shall commence and where you might have no interest in ever visiting. I'm also talking about major vacation destinations of millions of Americans, like Jamaica, where homosexuality is outlawed and punishable with a prison sentence, and where LGBT people are attacked and killed in waves of violence while the police often have little concern for this brutality.

But U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) wants to keep you from traveling to Cuba and believes that American companies shouldn't be allowed to do business there because Cuba isn't a democracy, violates human rights and is run by a "tyrant." He's been lashing out ever since President Obama announced the normalization of relations with Cuba. But if human rights abuses really were the metric by which we decided on trade and travel, the U.S. should be banning Americans from visiting our staunchest allies and our most popular vacation spots (including much of the Caribbean, where homosexuality is illegal, though it's not illegal in Cuba). It would literally be much of the globe.

Everyone's been using China and Vietnam as the examples to point to Rubio's hypocrisy, but let's put aside countries where we "normalized" relations. There are dozens of countries we were never estranged from, some of which we consider major business and military allies, and which engage in brutality against their citizens each and every day. Rubio attacked the president for his overtures to Iran as well, but he seems to have no problem with our relationship with Saudi Arabia. Both are closed societies, Muslim fundamentalist theocracies that have terrorized gay citizens and many others. Both punish homosexuality with floggings, lashings and death, including by hanging and beheading. But one of them has long been a cash cow for American oil companies, so Rubio doesn't seem to see its human rights abuses, which include treating women as if they're property, and arresting them for driving.

The United States gives financial aid to countries across Africa whose leaders are feted at the White House -- and whose laws punish homosexuality with imprisonment, from Uganda to Nigeria. President Obama is hellbent on signing a trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would include Brunei, as well as Malaysia, which criminalizes homosexuality too, and with which American companies are doing much more business. I've heard nothing from Marco Rubio about our close relationship with these human rights abusers.

Even The Washington Post's editorial board, in a myopic piece, criticized the president for his actions, as if we don't do business with human rights violators all around the world (far beyond China and Vietnam). That's because, even in this day of so much more supposed acceptance and support for LGBT rights, many people still see a difference between "human rights abuses" and oppression of LGBT people. They think about issues such as press freedom, crackdowns on protest or jailing of dissidents -- all horrendous realities about which we should be concerned -- as "human rights abuses" (though, again, on even this they look the other way in places like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and among our other so-called allies). But they don't think about the criminalization of LGBT people, and violence against them, in the same way -- almost as if anti-LGBT laws should be expected and tolerated even if they're unsavory.

I'm not one of those who believes that engagement -- and capitalism -- necessarily brings democracy, and we've certainly not seen that with China. But it's completely bogus for Marco Rubio and other Republicans still in the bosom of rich, older Cuban-American political donors in Florida to use human rights to make their argument. Rubio, who is opposed to giving LGBT people in this country basic civil rights -- like job protections and marriage equality -- doesn't seem to care about human rights in the U.S. or in much of the rest of the world where people are facing a far more horrific reality every day.