U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the following remarks on the Senate floor today:
M. President, as the attention of the world has been focused on the pre-1991 Soviet behavior of President Putin in Crimea – I come to the floor to remind the American public and members of this body that there is also a full-fledged human rights crisis ongoing in our own hemisphere, just 90 miles from our shores in Cuba.
As Ukrainians courageously fight to protect the democracy they won when the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago this year, the Cuban people continue to suffer from the oppression of a Soviet-style dictatorship that denies them the most basic rights.
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, millions of people – from Kiev to Budapest – Africa to Asia – were given their first chance in decades to build their own governments. A first chance to organize democratic elections. The chance to begin to determine their own futures.
Since the end of the Cold War, peace, prosperity and progress have largely been the order of the day for hundreds of millions of people, but not for the people of Cuba. Not one of these core principles of democracy can be found on the island.
Fidel and Raul Castro have been the only names on any ballot for over 50 years. Not one free election has been held. Not one Cuban has been allowed to own their own company. Not one legitimate trade union has been allowed to be organized. Not one peaceful protest has occurred without being brutally squashed by the regime.
No, this is the reality of Cuba today, it was the reality when the Berlin Wall fell -- and it’s been Cuba’s reality for almost 60 years since Fidel Castro began taking control of every aspect of Cuban life. This reality in Cuba, the decades-long brutal oppression of simple human and democratic rights, the total disdain for the aspirations of a people by the Castro regime, its military and communist lackey-thugs who penetrate and control people’s lives at all levels should not be overlooked, it should not be romanticized, and it should never be explained away.
But, unlike Ukraine where we have watched in horror as people have been ruthlessly beaten and killed for simply aspiring for democratic and transparent government, the Castro regime does not allow images of its oppression to be broadcast around the globe – let alone at home. But just because we do not see those images streaming across television sets and in the newspapers does not mean the world should not be watching. It does not mean we have turned the other way and it does not mean we have overlooked the brutal and often times lethal oppression of the regime in Cuba.
The number of people the regime has murdered or abducted is in the tens-of-thousands. Hundreds of thousands of children have been separated from their parents. Maybe hundreds of thousands of families have been torn apart. Millions of men, women and young people have been forced into the fields to cut sugar cane and perform other hard labor against their will. The average Cuban worker lives on an income of less than a dollar a day.
The Castro regime has been most adept not at spreading education and prosperity, but at instilling a penetrating fear and terror in the style of a Stalinist police state. This has been going on since 1959, but, unfortunately, it is not a thing of the past.
Let us not overlook the fact that arbitrary and politically motivated arrests in Cuba reportedly topped 1,000 for a third straight month this February, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, a group inside Cuba, founded by Elizardo Sanchez Santa-Cruz whose mission is to bring change and freedom to the island. The Commission reported that “arrests in the past three months have nearly doubled from the monthly averages of the previous two years.”
We must remind ourselves everyday of the continued oppression and human suffering that is happening – not only halfway around the world, but 90 miles from our own shores. The ongoing oppressive behavior of the Cuban regime we saw for the last half of the 20th century still haunts our hemisphere today.
While Putin has annexed Crimea, while one wonders what’s next, while Assad continues to kill his own people in Syria, while the world is watching the Taliban in Afghanistan, and violence continues in the Central African Republic taking countless lives, the oppression of the Castro regime keeps rolling along – unabated.
If there is a single symbol of that oppression, of the longing for freedom in Cuba, it is the Ladies in White – Damas de Blanco – and their leader, Berta Soler. The courage she has displayed to promote democracy and political freedom in Cuba has served as an extraordinary example for all of us and everyone around the world who longs to be free.
Every Sunday, they protest the jailing of their relatives by attending mass and quietly marching through the streets of Havana, praying for nothing more than the freedom of their relatives and respect for the human rights of all Cubans. Often arrested, roughed-up, detained, jailed, held for days -- maybe weeks -- released and jailed again, the Ladies in White are the symbol of freedom and women like Laura Pollan represents the story of thousands.
She was a school teacher living with her husband, Hector, the leader of the outlawed Cuban Liberal Party. They were living a normal life in a small house on Neptune Street in Havana. Early one morning there was a pounding at the front door. The police came in. Searched everything. There was a sham-trial held in Cuba. Hector was imprisoned. Sentenced to 20 years in jail and accused of acting against national security. His only crime was dreaming of a free Cuba, and putting that dream in writing.
Since I last came to the floor to speak about Cuba, I met Rosa Maria Paya, daughter of the long-time dissident and political activist, Oswaldo Paya. He was a Roman Catholic and the head of the Christian Liberation Movement who collected 25,000 signatures in the Varela Project – a peaceful effort to petition the regime for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. For his peaceful efforts he was awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament.
His peaceful efforts, were seen as a danger to the regime, a threat for which he was detained and arrested many times. Many times he suffered at the hands of the regime, and, last year, he died in Cuba – killed as Cuban state security rammed his car off the road. What we know is the car, driven by Spanish politician Angel Carromero, a citizen of Spain and Aron Modig, a party activist in Sweden, was involved in the fatal automobile accident that killed Paya and his Cuban colleague Harold Cepero.
The circumstances surrounding Paya’s death leave any reasonable person to conclude what really happened on that road in eastern Cuba that took the life of Oswaldo was an assassination. His daughter, Rosa Maria, immediately challenged the regime’s version of events stating that the family had received information from the survivors that their car was repeatedly rammed by another vehicle. “So we think it’s not an accident,” she said, “They wanted to do harm and then ended up killing my father.”
Ms. Paya was in Washington not long ago, accepting a posthumous award from the National Endowment for Democracy on behalf of another young Cuban activist who died alongside Oswaldo Paya. At the time, the new Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, had come before the Foreign Relations Committee during the nomination process, and assured me she would reach out to Ms. Paya when confirmed. Since then, she has not only met with Rosa Maria, but also directly challenged Cuba’s foreign minister to permit an independent international investigation into Mr. Paya’s death. I commend Ambassador Power for standing with those still suffering in Cuba and with Oswaldo Paya and his family who died for advocating peaceful democratic change and Christian values.
But Cuba’s reach doesn’t end with the detention or the death of dissidents like Oswaldo Paya. It doesn’t end at the water’s edge. It goes much further.
Cuba is at the head of a new and dire crisis in our hemisphere that we cannot ignore and now we see the same oppression of peaceful activists in Cuba on the streets of Caracas. Venezuela’s political crisis is growing: 40 dead; hundreds injured; the nation’s economy deteriorating; inflation at record levels; a scarcity of basic foods and goods. M. President, it sounds like Cuba to me!
Behind Venezuela’s economic crisis, we can see Cuba’s failed policies – expropriation and nationalization of various sectors of the economy, fixed prices in the consumer economy, criminalization of business leaders and their companies, currency manipulation and rationing of basic foodstuff.
Behind Venezuela’s political crisis, we can clearly see familiar Cuban tactics – the demonization of the dissent, intolerance and oppression of any form of opposition, politicizing of the military and judiciary, the silencing of independent television and radio stations, the shutting-down of newspapers, the arrest of political opponents doing nothing more than exercising basic rights to freedom of assembly.
We see Cuba’s destabilizing presence is deeply entwined in Venezuela’s crisis. It started with the discovery of 29 Cuban spies in Margarita Island in Venezuela in 1997. It grew steadily and insidiously through the Chavez years with the Cuban presence and key advisors from Havana in almost every institution of national government in Venezuela – from the military to intelligence agencies to the health sector to industrial policy. And the result? Democracy subverted and innocent people dying from bullets fired by the government and its thugs – just like in Cuba.
And yet, knowing the instability that the Cuban regime continues to spread, amazingly, Europe, nations in Latin America and the Caribbean, and some of my colleagues in this Chamber, are seeking new opportunities to engage the Cuban regime. Some want to ease sanctions at this critical moment and fundamentally redefine our relationship with Cuba. I could not disagree more.
We can never turn our back on what has happened and continues to happen in Cuba! We can never wink-and-nod, and say: It’s been 50 years, that’s long enough, things are changing for the better in Cuba, so we should ease sanctions.
I say – NO! – No, we should not ease sanctions. We should not let up. We should not reward the Castro regime for its human rights violations. For the suffering it continues to cause the people of Cuba.
We should not reward the regime for the long dark years they have brought to the island. We should not ease tourism restrictions simply because the clock is ticking.
Those who wish to pursue engagement with Cuba must not forget Cuba’s history and its present state of torture and oppression – its systematic curtailment of freedom.
Recent events tell a different story: The story of two terrorist states – Cuba and North Korea.
There is unshakeable, undeniable, incontrovertible proof of the Cuban government colluding with North Korea in violation of United Nations sanctions regime. In July of last year, a North Korean ship was docked in Cuba’s new Mariel Port facility.
The North Korean ship, suspicious to even the most untrained observer, left the dock and it wasn’t long afterward that it was seized by the Panamanian government when it attempted to enter the Panama Canal. Panamanian authorities boarded the ship, and what did they find? There, in the cargo bays, under some 200,000 bags of sugar, authorities discovered 240 tons of weapons bound for – where? – that’s right – for North Korea, another terrorist state.
And yet, apparently this evidence – to some of my colleagues – is not of concern.
But that’s not the end of the story, M. President. When authorities inventoried the 240 tons of weapons hidden beneath 200,000 bags of sugar they found on the North Korean ship – they found two MiG aircraft; several SA-2 and SA-3 surface-to-air missile systems; missile and radar components; and a cache of small arms and rocket propelled grenades.
I ask my colleagues, is this the kind of behavior of a tired old benign regime – one that deserves our sympathy? Is this a misunderstanding that does not check enough terrorist boxes? Is this something we should justifiably ignore, falling under the category of Castro-will-be-Castro? Or is this, at its core, the act of a dangerous player – listed as a terrorist state – that we would not tolerate from any other nation?
It seems to me that supplying a rogue nation like North Korea with a secret cache of weapons demands something more than the loosening of travel restrictions and the opening of trade. It demands exactly the opposite.
We should treat Cuba and the Castro regime as we would treat any other state sponsor of terrorism – which it is.
And yet, here I am, M. President, once again forced to come to the floor of the Senate. Once again – to point to these pictures of a North Korean ship in a Cuban port smuggling MiG aircraft and surface to air missiles and ask why should we turn a blind eye to what we clearly would not accept from Iran, Syria, or Sudan? And why, in God’s name, would we want to take this opportunity to reward the regime with cash-flows so they can continue to oppress their people and subvert neighboring countries?
Why should we accept the lame excuses given by the Cuban regime that – somehow – despite the fact that many of the arms were still in their original packaging, despite the fact that others had been recently calibrated, despite the fact that there was a fresh coat of paint over the insignia of the Cuban Air Force on the side of the MiGs to hide their origin, despite the fact that the entire shipment was covered with a-couple-of-hundred-thousand bags of sugar, Cuba claimed that this was a purely innocent business transaction and that the arms were being sent to North Korea for required maintenance and would have been returned to the island.
Does anyone actually believe such a ludicrous claim? But the broader question for my colleagues is: Can we and should we simply ignore it and move on? Even though United Nations weapons inspectors found that the shipment was a clear violation of UN sanctions – that Cuba was the first country in the Western hemisphere to violate international sanctions related to North Korea and that the shipment constituted the largest amount of arms shipped to or from North Korea since the adoption of Security Council Resolutions 1874 in 2009 and Resolution 2094 in 2013. I repeat: “the largest amount of arms shipped to or from North Korea.” If that is not food for thought when it comes to easing restrictions against the terrorist state to our south, I don’t know what it.
That said, in recent years, some would have us believe that reforms led by Raul Castro have placed Cuba on a path to economic progress, but, if we look at the new law on foreign investment that Cuba passed last week, we get a clearer picture of the truth behind Cuba’s economic model.
Let’s be clear about this new economic model. Under Cuba’s new foreign investment law, investment projects will be allowed to be fully funded by foreign capital. Business taxes on profits would be cut by 50 percent. Foreign companies would be exempt from paying taxes for the first 8 years of operations in Cuba and many foreigners living in Cuba would be let off the hook from paying income taxes at all.
But think about it. The question is: Who wins? Not the people of Cuba.
The most glaring omission in this new law is any benefit at all to the Cuban people. Instead of receiving new investment opportunities of benefitting from tax cuts and loop holes, they will continue to live under restrictive laws and regulations – unable to start a business, unable to follow a dream, build a better life.
They are left to live under the most restrictive laws preventing them from ever realizing their dreams for themselves and their families.
In fact, the Cuban regime has permitted people to work for themselves – to be entrepreneurs but only 200 types of jobs the government sanctions. They have a list of authorized jobs that includes sewing buttons, filling cigarette lighters, and street performing. Not exactly lucrative start-ups that can build an economy. These “authorized” jobs bear more resemblance to a feudal economy than anything we would recognize as economic opportunity.
At the same time, the government has moved aggressively to close in-home movie theaters, second hand clothing markets, and fledgling private restaurants that its considers too large or too successful. Why? Because anything that allows Cubans to meet legally, lawfully, and as a group – is a threat to the regime.
And while the Cuban government offers new incentives to foreign investors and continues to clamp down on self-employed workers, the real economic change in Cuba is the growing role of the Cuban armed forces in the country’s economy.
Under the watchful eye of Raul Castro’s son-in-law, a general in the Cuban Armed Forces, the military holding company, GAESA, has amassed control of more than 40 percent of Cuba’s economy. Through companies like GAESA, the government and the armed forces – those most loyal to the Castros – are laying a foundation for its future control of Cuba and the Cuban economy.
On the economic front, I think it's important to make the point that when people argue for trade and travel with Cuba, they are arguing to do so with Castro's monopolies. Let’s be clear, regular Cubans are prohibited from engaging in foreign trade and commerce. So we want to trade with Castro's monopolies? Do we? Do we want to reward the regime?
The U.S. government’s own report of agricultural sales to Cuba states how every single transaction with Cuba, by hundreds of American agricultural companies, have only had one counter-part: Castro's food monopoly, through a company named Alimport that hasn't helped the people one bit. So do we really want to unleash billions to Castro's monopolies?
Also, every single foreign "people-to-people" traveler currently stays at a hotel or resort owned by the Cuban military (GAESA). No exceptions!
So, M. President, how does that promote the "independence of the Cuban people from the regime?" as President Obama's policy statement upon releasing these regulations states?
At the very least, they should be compelled to stay at a "casa particular" – a private home – but staying at the military's facilities contravenes the President's own policy statement. This hardly constitutes an economic opening for the people of Cuba.
However, if there is one positive trend to be found in Cuba today, it is that after decades of fear and self-imposed silence, there is a growing number of Cuban citizens beginning to speak out critically, increasingly in public.
In June 2012, Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, known as Antunez, after testifying before the Foreign Relations Committee via Skype – as you can see in this photograph – was beaten and detained for his testimony on human rights abuses on the island. But that did not stop him and it did not stop the bloggers from the Cuban diaspora from getting the word out.
After decades of being manipulated by the Castros, the people of Cuba no longer identify with the government. And while the government still holds power, its legitimacy is plummeting in the opinions of its people. So after 55 years of dictatorship, it is our responsibility in the international community to encourage this independence and help the people of Cuba reclaim their rights: Rights to freedom of expression, rights to organize unions, rights to freedom of assembly, rights to freedom of the press, rights to freedom of religion, universal human rights, the rights and freedoms that will be the building blocks of the new and democratic Cuba of the future.
But let us not be misled. Though Berta Soler is now allowed by the regime to visit the United States and Europe, when she returns to Cuban soil there is no change in the status of the Damas en Blanco. Every move she and her courageous partners make is monitored by the Castro regime. They are still physically harassed, intimidated, and arrested. Why? For simply wanting what any mother in any country on the face of the earth wants – to learn of the fate of her husband, son or daughter who has been harassed, beaten, and jailed by an aging, illegitimate regime.
According to the Cuba Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, there were more than 15,000 cases of arbitrary, politically-motivated detentions since the start of 2012.
In January of this year, when 30 heads of state from Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as the Secretary General of the UN and Secretary General of the OAS were at a summit in Havana, there were more than 1,050 detentions over the course of the month.
In one prominent case, a leading Afro-Cuban political activist, intellectual and known leftist Manuel Cuesta Morua was arrested after attempting to organize a parallel civil society summit during the visit by heads of state. This simple practice, a practice that is not uncommon and, in fact, is ubiquitous throughout Latin America and the world, is not tolerated by the Cuban regime.
Instead, Mr. Cuesta Morua faced five days of intensive interrogations and has been charged with “disseminating false news against international peace,” joining prominent activists Jorge Luis Garcia Perez and Guillermo Fariñas, who was awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament for his dedication to peace.
He is shown here being taken away by the police. These activists have faced repeated, brutal acts at the hands of the Castro regime – no less violent than the regimes of any other terrorist state.
Finally, it is important to note that detentions, violence and harassment are not reserved for political activists alone, but also directed at labor rights activists as well.
In early March, AFL-CIO President Trumka called on the Cuban government to end its harassment of Mr. Cuesta Morua, and all independent union activists, advocating for labor rights to protect Cuban workers, like Morua and Maria Elena Mir and her colleagues.
American workers are not turning a blind eye to what the Cuban regime is doing to limit worker rights, and we should not turn a blind eye either. We cannot remain silent.
We must support those like Morua and Maria who are willing to step forward for Labor rights in the face of a repressive regime that will not stop at anything to silence them. As the people of Cuba look to cast off the shackles of five decades of dictatorial rule, we must stand-with and speak out in support-of all those who seek to reclaim their civil and political rights, and promote political pluralism and democratic values. We cannot turn our back on Cuba’s human right violations record for decades simply because “enough time has passed.”
If that’s the case, M. President, enough time has surely passed in Syria, and Sudan, and Iran, and North Korea.
To me and to the thousands who have suffered at the hands of these regimes, the clock has nothing to do with our policy options. Engagement and sanctions relief has to be earned – it can’t be timed-out! It must come through real change not Xs on a calendar or the ticking of a clock.
And the clock is ticking for Alan Gross. On December 4th, 2009, Alan Gross, a private sub-contractor for the U.S. government, working to bring information to the Cuban people, was arrested in Cuba. Mr. Gross is a 64-year old development professional who worked in dozens of countries around the world with programs to help people get access to basic information.
Since 2009, he has been detained in Villa Marista – a prison in Havana notorious for its treatment of political prisoners by the Cuban National Security Agency. This is not a minimum security prison where foreigners are routinely held. It is a harsh, repressive prison –reserved for Cuban dissidents.
He is still being held at Villa Marista, and so I come to the floor to urge my colleagues – indeed, to urge the Administration – to do all it can to free Mr. Gross, and keep pressure on the Castro regime.
After serving four years of a 15 year sentence, this 64 year old American’s mental health is reported to be deteriorating and his life may well be in danger.
The case of Alan Gross is only one example of why we cannot let up until the dead weight of this oppressive regime is lifted – once and for all -- from the backs of 11 million Cubans living on that island nation, isolated from the world.
M. President, we have supported democracy movements around the world. It is the idea upon which this nation was founded and it is who we are as a people and what we stand for in the eyes of the world.
We can no longer condone through inaction and outright support – even from some of my colleagues in this chamber – the actions of a repressive regime 90 miles from our shores simply because of the passage of time, or because of some romantic idea of what the Castro regime is all about.
To my colleagues let me say, I know I have come to this floor on many occasions demanding action. I have come to this floor demanding that we live up to our rhetoric and our values. I ask that we hold the Castro brothers accountable for the years of suffering – the years of brutality and repression that has deprived the Cuban people of the basic human rights we so proudly proclaim to support around the world.
And I will come to this floor again-and-again-and- again to ask for nothing less. To ask that we never allow the Castro regime to profit from increased trade that will benefit the regime, that will use these dollars for repression, but not put one ounce of food on the plates of Cuban families.
Let me end, M. President with this photograph of a man being arrested in Havana and flashing a sign recognized across Cuba and throughout the world.
Libertad! Libertad! Libertad! That’s all I ask for the people of Cuba. And I will not rest until Cuba is free.
Thank you, M. President, and with that I yield the floor.
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