Senator Menendez Floor Speech on Cuba

Friday, December 11, 2009
Last night, U.S. Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey delivered this important floor speech on U.S. policy towards Cuba:

I rise to speak about the Omnibus bill before the Senate and specifically about provisions on Cuba that have not passed the Senate and have not been subjected to debate by this body. These provisions would undo current law, where the Castro regime would have to pay in advance of shipment for goods being sold to them – despite their terrible credit history.

Yes, Cuba's credit history is horrible. The Paris Club of creditor nations recently announced that Cuba has failed to pay almost $30 billion in debt (not related to official development assistance). Among poor nations, that's the worst credit record in the world. So I ask: if the Cuban government has put off paying those who it already owes $30 billion, why does anyone think it would meet new financial obligations to American farmers?

Considering the serious economic crisis we're facing right now, we need to focus on solutions for hard-working Americans, not subsidies for a brutal dictatorship.
We should evaluate how to encourage the regime to allow a legitimate opening – not in terms of cell phones and hotel rooms that Cubans can't afford, but in terms of the right to organize, the right to think and speak what they believe.

However, what we are doing with this Omnibus bill, M. President, is far from evaluation, and the process by which these changes have been forced upon this body is so deeply offensive to me, and so deeply undemocratic, that I have no intention – no intention - of continuing to vote for omnibus appropriations bills if they are going to jam foreign policy changes down throats of members, in what some consider "must pass" bills.

I am putting my colleagues on notice, if you do that – that's fine – but don't expect me to cast critical votes to pass your bill.

An example of the danger of what we are doing by changing the definition of "cash in advance" is exhibited by a Europapress report:

"During a trade fair this month in Havana, Germany's Ambassador to Cuba, Claude Robert Ellner, told German businessmen that Cuba's debt to the German government had been forgiven, in the hopes that Cuba will meet its debt obligations to them."

In other words, German taxpayers will now be responsible for bailing out its private sector and, by implication, the Castro regime.

Thanks to the U.S. policy of requiring the Castro regime to pay "cash in advance" for its purchases of agricultural products, U.S. taxpayers can rest assured the same will not happen to them.

The Castro regime has mastered the art of making some European governments acquiesce to its every whim, even if it means a free-pass for its daunting repression.

So what's the secret?

It's simple.

They give European countries a choice: Either do as we say or we will freeze your nationals' bank accounts and default on any debts.

This practice is also known as blackmail.

Let's take Spain, for example.

Recently, European news services reported that Spain has begun a diplomatic offensive to convince the Castro regime to unblock nearly 266 million euros ($400 million U.S. Dollars) in funds that have been frozen from over 300 Spanish companies in Cuba.

Not coincidentally, the Spanish government announced that upon assuming the presidency of the European Union in 2010, it would enter into a new bilateral agreement with the Castro regime that would replace current EU policy, which contains diplomatic sanctions for human rights violations.

The Castro regime had made it clear to Spain that the current European Union policy was an "insurmountable obstacle" to normal relations and, I might add, for Spanish nationals and companies to get their money back.

Therefore, the Spanish government immediately jumped.

And on a recent visit to Cuba, Spain's Foreign Minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos met for three hours with Raul Castro - and didn't get one single concession on human rights – but did get $300 million that Cuba owed to Spanish companies that do business in Cuba.

Is that what we intend to do?

So, the lesson for dictators is that frozen bank accounts and debt can buy you a free-pass for repression.

A recent Reuters article highlights that Cuba continues to block access to foreign business bank accounts.

I quote from the article:

"Many foreign suppliers and investors in Cuba are still unable to repatriate hundreds of millions of dollars from local accounts almost a year after Cuban authorities blocked them because of the financial crisis, foreign diplomats and businessmen said.

The businessmen, who asked not to be identified, said they were increasingly frustrated because the Communist authorities refused to offer explanations or solutions for the situation, which stems from a cash crunch in the Cuban economy triggered by the global downturn and heavy hurricane damage last year.

'I have repeatedly e-mailed, visited the offices and sent my representative to the offices of a company I did business with for years and which owes me money, and they simply refuse to talk to me,' a Canadian businessman told Reuters.

Delegations from foreign banks and investor funds holding commercial paper from Cuban state banks have repeatedly traveled to Cuba this year seeking answers from the central bank or other authorities—without success—the sources said.

Representatives of some companies with investments or joint ventures on the island said they were bracing for the possibility of not being able to repatriate year-end dividends paid to their accounts in Cuba

Some 90 percent of the country's economic activity is in state hands.

Foreign economic attaches and commercial representatives in Cuba said most of their nationals doing business with the Caribbean island still faced payment problems."

Earlier this year, the Russian Federation's Audit Chamber revealed that the Cuban regime failed on three occasions to pay installments on the US $355 million credit deal it signed with Russia on Sept. 28, 2006.

This is just the latest episode in a saga that, in 2009 alone, includes:

First, reports by Mexico's La Jornada and Spain's El Pais newspapers that hundreds of foreign companies that transact business with the Cuban regime's authorities, have had their accounts frozen since January 2009 by the regime-owned bank that is solely empowered to conduct commercial banking operations in convertible currencies.

Second, a June 9, 2009 Reuters article said, I quote, "Cuba has rolled over 200 million Euros in bond issues that were due in May, as the country's central bank asked for another year to repay foreign holders of the debt, financial sources in London and Havana said this week."

As a reminder, in Castro's Cuba, you can only do business with the government, as private business activity is severely restricted.

The real reason why so many, whose work is often subsidized by business interests, advocate Cuba policy changes is about money and commerce, not about freedom and democracy.

It makes me wonder why those who spend hours and hours in Havana, listening to Fidel Castro's soliloquies, cannot find minutes for human rights and democracy activists.

It makes me wonder why those who go and enjoy the sun of Cuba, will not shine the light of freedom on its jails full of political prisoners.

They advocate for labor rights in the U.S. but are willing to accept forced labor in Cuba.

They talk about democracy in Burma, but are willing to sip rum with Cuba's dictators.

Which takes me to Placetas, Cuba.

Placetas is a city in the Villa Clara Province in the center of Cuba.

In other words, not a beach-side resort frequented by Canadian and European tourists.

Placetas is also the home of Cuban political prisoner and pro-democracy leader, Jorge Luis Garcia Perez "Antunez."

On, March 15, 1990, a then 25-year old Antunez stood at the center square of Placetas, listening to the government's official radio transmission calling for the IV Congress of the Communist Party. He spontaneously began to shout "what we want and we need reforms like the ones performed in Eastern Europe."

Immediately, he was beaten by State Security agents, charged with "oral enemy propaganda" and imprisoned. That would be the beginning of a 17-year prison term, almost half of his current life in prison.

Antúnez was not released until 2007. He is now 45 years old, with an entire life ahead of him.

The Castro regime would love for Antunez to leave the island permanently, but he refuses to do so. He has decided to stay in Cuba and demand that the human and civil rights of the Cuban people be respected. For this, he has been re-arrested over 30 times since 2007.

Last week, at that same center square in Placetas, Antunez and other local pro-democracy leaders gathered to honor Cuba's current political prisoners.

Antunez and his colleagues were not "educated" on the importance of human rights and civil disobedience by foreign tourists – as some suggest would happen.

Unwittingly though, foreign tourists have financed their repression.

Let me read an open letter that Mr. Antunez sent to Cuba's dictator Raul Castro – I quote, an English translation:

Mr. Raul Castro,

My name is Jorge Luis Garcia Perez Antunez -- a former political prisoner -- and I am writing to you again not because I pretend to make you aware of something that far from alien, is common place in Cuba due to the nature and politics of your government.

For several months now my spouse Yris Tamara Perez Aguilera and I find ourselves under forced house arrest by your political police. The week before the Juanes concert, a high ranking State security official upon arresting me informed me that there had been an order for my arrest throughout the island of Cuba. He emphasized that they were going to be watching every step I take. Since that date I have lost count of how many times I have been arrested, the majority of times with violence.

Mr. Dictator - allow me a few questions that may help you clarify some doubts amongst those compatriots of mine who were hopeful that your government would diminish repression or that even democratic openings could be made.

With what right do the authorities, without a prior crime being committed, detain and impede the free movement of their citizens in violation of a universally recognized right?

What feelings could move a man like Captain Idel Gonzalez Morfi to beat my wife, a defenseless woman so brutally causing lasting effects to her bones for the sole act of arriving at a radio station to denounce with evidence the torture that her brother received in a Cuban prison. Or is it that for you there are only five families that exist in our country that have the right to protest and demand justice for their jailed relatives?

Should you not be ashamed that your corpulent police officers remain stationed for days at the corner of my home to impede us from leaving our house and monitoring our movements in our own city?

Where is the professionalism and ethics of your subordinates that with their ridiculous operations provoke the mockery of the populace towards these persons on an almost daily basis?

How do you feel, when you encourage or allow these persons who call themselves "men," to beat and drag women through the streets such as: Damaris Moya Portieles, Marta Diaz, Ana Alfonso Arteaga, Sara Marta Fonseca, Yris Perez and most recently the blogger Yoani Sánchez?

How can you and your subordinates sleep calmly after deliberately and maliciously phisically knocking-down on more than one occasion Idania Yánez Contreras who is several months pregnant?

How can you and your government speak about the battle of ideas when you are constantly repressing ideas through beatings, arrests and years of incarceration?

Maybe your followers cannot find or even attempt to find a response. However, I find myself in the long list of persons that are not afraid to respond.

You act this way because you are a cruel man and insensible to the pain and suffering of others. You act this way because you are faithful to your anti-democratic and dictatorial vocation, because you are convinced that dictatorships like the one you preside over can only be maintained through terror and torture, and because the most minimal opening can lead to the loss of the only thing that you are interested in -- which is maintaining yourself in power.

Lastly -- returning to my case in particular -- I will respond without even asking you beforehand the concrete motives of your continual repression against my person. Your government and your servants in the repressive corps cannot forgive my two biggest and only "crimes": First, that despite almost two decades of torture and cruel and inhumane punishment during my unjust and severe sanction, you could not break my dignity and my position as a political prisoner. Second, because even though I am accosted and brutalized and above all risk returning to prison, I have taken the decision not to leave my country in which I will continue struggling for a change that I believe is both necessary and inevitable.

- From Placetas, Jorge Luis García Pérez "Antunez," December 2009.

This is the voice of those who languish under Castro's brutal dictatorship. As you can see, Antunez, is an Afro-Cuban, not part of the white elite of the regime's dictatorship.

Antunez's voice, rings in my head, tugs at my conscience. His words, … "despite almost two decades of torture and cruel and inhumane punishment during my unjust and severe sanction, you could not break my dignity and my position as a political prisoner. Second, because even though I am accosted and brutalized and above all risk returning to prison, I have taken the decision not to leave my country in which I will continue struggling for a change I believe is both necessary and inevitable."

Antunez is right, change in Cuba is inevitable, but the United States needs to be a catalyst of that change.

These are the human rights activists that some would turn their back on for the sake of doing business.

Well not me, not now, not ever.