CNN: Menendez on Obama's Secret (and Bad) Cuba Deal

Sunday, January 4, 2015
From CNN:

Sen. Menendez: "very difficult to get an ambassador confirmed" for Cuba

Today on CNN’s State of the Union, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Robert Menendez, joined Dana Bash to discuss U.S. negotiations with Cuba.

Highlights:

On establishing formal diplomatic relations with Cuba: "We already have an operating interests section, which the administration could easily convert to an embassy. An ambassador, I would think it would be very difficult to get an ambassador confirmed."

​On the Obama Administration's 'secret diplomacy': "And this is a problem not only as it relates to Cuba, but Iran, this secret diplomacy in which witnesses come before the committee and you ask them questions about what's happening, whether it be about Iran or Cuba, and you don't get a straight answer. And now you find out that there was in one case a year-and-a-half, in another case over a year of engagement. That's going to be problematic for the administration as it appears before the committee again and again."

On the Obama Administration's deal with Cuba: "So we subverted, in my view, the standards that are important for us to uphold globally in a way that we could have - if you're going to make a deal with the regime, then get something for it. But at the end of the day, they got absolutely nothing for giving up everything that the Castro regime wants to see and has lobbied for."

Below is a transcript of the Cuba portion (click here to see video):

CNN's DANA BASH: Speaking of engaging, let's turn to Cuba and the fact that the White House, the president announced just a couple of weeks ago the idea that they were going to expand for the first time in over 50 years relations with Cuba. These talks and this deal that was brokered was going on for more than a year.

You were the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. You are of Cuban descent. Were you engaged in these talks?

SENATOR MENENDEZ: Oh, absolutely not. I knew nothing about them. And this is a problem not only as it relates to Cuba, but Iran, this secret diplomacy in which witnesses come before the committee and you ask them questions about what's happening, whether it be about Iran or Cuba, and you don't get a straight answer. And now you find out that there was in one case a year-and-a-half, in another case over a year of engagement.

That's going to be problematic for the administration as it appears before the committee again and again.

BASH: And, I mean, what was your reaction? How furious were you when you found out about this yearlong push, secret push that included not just the president, but the pope, to get these - the detainee Alan Gross released, but also, more importantly, an agreement to open up relations?

MENENDEZ: Well, Dana, it's less about me and whatever lack of information I was given, as someone who is both the chairman of the committee and one of a few Cuban-Americans in the Senate and on the Democratic side.

What it really is, is about the 10 million people in Cuba who got a bad deal, because what we did here is, we exchanged one innocent American for three convicted Cuban spies, including one that was convicted for conspiracy to commit murder against U.S. citizens, who were murdered by the Castro regime, and, secondly, we got nothing in terms of democracy and human rights. We got nothing about political freedoms.

As a matter of fact, on New Year's Eve, Cuban activists and dissidents just simply wanted to hold in Revolution Square an opportunity for one minute for Cubans to come forward and speak about what they thought their country should be in the future. And those activists were arrested before they even got to the demonstration.

So, here you are, you know, a week or two after the president's announcements, in which human rights activists and political dissidents are arrested for simply speaking about what their vision of Cuba should be tomorrow. We don't know about any of the 53 dissidents that supposedly - political prisoners that were supposedly going to be released.

And we don't know about this supposed person that we had as an asset, because I think the reason we haven't heard about who that person really is, there's speculation as to who he is, is that they overplayed his importance.

BASH: Senator, let me just stop you there, because I want our viewers to hear what the president said right here on this program to Candy Crowley about the reason he wants to change things vis-a-vis Cuba.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: For 50 years, we have tried to see if we can overthrow the regime through isolation. It hasn't worked. If we engage, we have the opportunity to influence the course of events at a time when there's going to be some generational change in that country. And I think we should seize it. And I intend to do so.

BASH: Senator, doesn't he have a point? Can you sort of take aside your understandable history and personal view of Cuba and look at this country as a place that the U.S. does need to sort of get on with and that this is a 55-year-old policy that just hasn't worked?

MENENDEZ: Well, a couple of points. Number one is, you know, we have had engagement with China over 50 years. We can't talk about democracy and human rights being better in China. Same thing with Vietnam for nearly, what, 20 years now.

So, when we engage countries like that, we maybe have an economic interest, but we cannot hold them up as the standard of how we promote democracy and human rights. And, look, Cuba's been engaged by Europe, Latin America, Canada for decades, and they haven't created one iota of human rights and democracy.

So we subverted, in my view, the standards that are important for us to uphold globally in a way that we could have - if you're going to make a deal with the regime, then get something for it. But at the end of the day, they got absolutely nothing for giving up everything that the Castro regime wants to see and has lobbied for.

BASH: Is the president just naive here, or is he, as you said, being secretive on this, just like he has been on Iran?

MENENDEZ: Well, look, I - both because of history and engagement over 22 years in the Congress, I understand that this - the Castro regime only changes out of economic necessity, not ideological change, so that it reduced its army, it accepted the American dollar, the most hated symbol in the revolution, it even accepted some degree of international investment, all which previously had been rejected by the regime, out of economic necessity.

So if you understand that economic necessity is the way in which the regime ultimately creates some change, then at a moment in which it was facing the great difficulties, because Venezuela, its patron, is about to no longer be its patron, it seems to me that what we did is throw an economic lifeline without getting any political or democracy opportunities.

BASH: One last question, real quick. This is now in your lap, in Congress' lap. Do you see any scenario where the money for a new embassy in Cuba or an ambassador will actually get passed or confirmed?

MENENDEZ: Well, we already have an operating interests section, which the administration could easily convert to an embassy. An ambassador, I would think it would be very difficult to get an ambassador confirmed.

BASH: Senator Robert Menendez, thank you very much. Happy new year.

MENENDEZ: Thank you. Happy new year.