Must-Read: Menendez Floor Speech on Trajectory of Obama's Cuba Policy

Wednesday, October 7, 2015
Menendez on Trajectory of Cuba Engagement Policy

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) delivered the following remarks on the Senate Floor on the recent flawed policy changes with Cuba and provided a progress report on democracy and human rights on the island.

Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:

I rise today – as I always have – in defense of the Cuban people who long for the day when they are free of the iron fist of the Castro regime.  A day when we can honestly say:  ‘Cuba es libre’ -- and mean it.  I rise with great concern over the trajectory of the policy towards Cuba that President Obama announced on December 17th, 2014.

In executing this new policy, the Obama Administration has spared no generosity towards the dictatorship in Cuba.  It commuted the sentences of three Cuban spies, including one serving a life sentence for murder conspiracy against Americans who died while flying civilian aircraft in international airspace that was struck down by Cuban MIGs.  It eased a host of travel and trade sanctions in spite of the purpose and intent of U.S. law.  It removed Cuba from the state-sponsors of terrorism list while it continues harboring fugitives from U.S. justice and members of foreign terrorist organizations.  It negotiated an agreement to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba that falls short of international legal norms.  It upgraded Cuba in the trafficking-in-persons report despite its continued slave labor and human trafficking practices.  And it even acquiesced to shunning dissidents from attending the U.S. Embassy's flag-raising ceremony in Havana.

Yet, Cuban dictator Raul Castro refuses to reciprocate any of these concessions.  To the contrary, Castro has emphasized that he  ‘will not cede one millimeter’ -- and in his speech at last month's United Nations General Assembly gathering demanded even more, namely for President Obama to evade U.S. law as regards sanctions, to shutdown Radio and TV Marti, to end democracy programs, to return Guantanamo and to pay a trillion dollars in damages to his regime.

Today, ten months later, the metrics of this new policy show it's clearly headed in the wrong direction.  The Castro family is poised for a generational transition in power.  The Cuban regime's monopolies are being strengthened.  Courageous democracy leaders are being relegated to obscurity – their voices muffled -- by the actions of the United States and foreign nations alike.  Political repression has exponentially increased.  The number of Cubans desperately fleeing the island is rising.  And the purpose and intent of U.S. law is being circumvented.  The trajectory of our policy is unacceptable and I urge President Obama to correct its course.

While speaking recently to a business gathering in Washington, D.C., President Obama argued how he believes this new policy is ‘creating the environment in which a generational change and transition will take place in that country.’  But the key questions is – ‘a generational change and transition’ towards what and by whom? Cuban democracy leader, Antonio Rodiles, has concisely expressed this concern --  ‘legitimizing the [Castro] regime is the path contrary to a transition.’

CNN has revealed that the Cuban delegation in the secret talks that began in mid-2013 with U.S. officials in Ottawa, Toronto and Rome, and which led to the December 17th policy announcement, was headed by Colonel Alejandro Castro Espin.  Colonel Castro Espin is the 49-year old son of Cuban dictator Raul Castro.  In both face-to-face meetings between President Obama and Raul Castro this year -- first at April's Summit of the Americas in Panama City and just last month at the United Nations General Assembly in New York -- Alejandro was seated – with a wide grin -- next to his father.

Alejandro holds the rank of Colonel in Cuba's Ministry of the Interior, with his hand on the pulse and trigger of the island's intelligence services and repressive organs.  It's no secret that Raul Castro is grooming Alejandro for a position of power.  Sadly, his role as interlocutor with the Obama Administration seeks to further their goal of an intra-family generational transition within the Castro clan -- similar to the Assad’s in Syria and the Kim’s in North Korea. And we know how well those have worked out.  To give you an idea of how Colonel Alejandro Castro views the United States, he describes its leaders as ‘those who seek to subjugate humanity to satisfy their interests and hegemonic goals.

But, of course, it also takes money to run a totalitarian dictatorship -- which is why Raul Castro named his son-in-law, General Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez Callejas, as head of GAESA, which stands for Grupo de Administracion Empresarial, S.A or translated Business Administrative Group.  GAESA is the holding company of Cuba’s Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, Cuba’s military.  It is the dominant driving force of the island’s economy.  Established in the 1990s by Raul Castro, it controls tourism companies, ranging from the very profitable Gaviota S.A., which runs Cuba’s hotels, restaurants, car rentals and nightclubs, to TRD Caribe S.A., which runs the island’s retail stores.  GAESA controls virtually all economic transactions in Cuba.

According to Hotels Magazine, a leading industry publication, GAESA, through its subsidiaries, is by far the largest regional hotel conglomerate in Latin America.  It controls more hotel rooms than The Walt Disney Company.  As McLatchy News explained a few years back, ‘Tourists who sleep in some of Cuba's hotels, drive rental cars, fill up their gas tanks, and even those riding in taxis have something in common: They are contributing to the [Cuban] Revolutionary Armed Forces' bottom line.’

GAESA became this business powerhouse thanks to the millions of Canadian and European tourists that have and continue to visit Cuba each year.  These tourists have done absolutely nothing to promote freedom and democracy in Cuba.  To the contrary, they have directly financed a system of control and repression over the Cuban people -- all while enjoying cigars made by Cuban workers paid in worthless pesos, and having a Cuba Libre – which is an oxymoron, on the beaches of Varadero.  Yet, despite the clear evidence, some want American tourists to now double GAESA's bonanza – and, through GAESA, strengthen the regime.

An insightful report this week by Bloomberg Business also explained how, ‘[Raul's son-in-law, General Rodriguez] is the gatekeeper for most foreign investors, requiring them to do business with his organization if they wish to set up shop on the island…If and when the U.S. finally removes its half-century embargo on Cuba, it will be this man who decides which investors get the best deals.’  In other words, all of the talking points about how lifting the embargo and tourism restrictions would somehow benefit the Cuban people are empty and misleading rhetoric.  It would only serve as a funnel for Castro, Inc.

Here's what over a dozen of Cuba's most renowned pro-democracy leaders, including the head of The Ladies in White -- a pro-democracy group composed of the mothers, wives, daughters and other relatives of Cuban political prisoners -- Berta Soler, former prisoner of conscience Jorge Luis Garcia Perez ‘Antunez’ and Sakaharov prize recipient Guillermo Farinas, warned in an open letter to the U.S. Congress dated September 25th, 2015: ‘The lifting of the embargo, as proposed by the [Obama] Administration, will permit the old ruling elite to transfer their power to their political heirs and families, giving little recourse to the Cuban people in confronting this despotic power.  Totalitarian communism will mutate into a totalitarian state adopting minimal market reforms that will serve only to accentuate the existing social inequality in the midst of an increasingly uncertain future.

From an economic perspective, the very concept of trade and investment in Cuba is grounded in a misconception about how ‘business’ takes place on the island.  In most of the world, trade and investment means dealing with privately-owned or operated corporations.  That's not the case in Cuba.  In Cuba, foreign trade and investment is the exclusive domain of the state, i.e. the Castro family. There are no ‘exceptions.’  In the last five decades, every single "foreign trade" transaction with Cuba has been with the Castro regime, or an individual acting on behalf of the regime.  The regime's exclusivity regarding trade and investment was enshrined in Article 18 of Castro's 1976 Constitution. That has not changed.

Moreover, M. President, there is no private sector in Cuba. We often hear the Obama Administration and the media refer to Cuba's small ‘self-employment’ licensees as ‘private enterprise,’ which implies ‘private ownership.’  Yet Cuba's ‘self-employed’ licensees have no ownership rights whatsoever - be it to their artistic or ‘intellectual’ outputs, commodity they produce, or personal service they offer.  Licensees have no legal entity – hence business—to transfer, sell or leverage. They don't even own the equipment essential to their self-employment. More to the point, licensees have no right to engage in foreign trade, seek or receive foreign investments. Effectually, licensees continue to work for the state -- and when the state decides such jobs are no longer needed, licensees are shut down without recourse, which has happened several times in the past.

The fact is, we already know what expanded U.S. trade with Cuba would look like.  Since the passage of the 2000 Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act  (TSREEA), over $5 billion in U.S. agricultural and medical products have been sold to Cuba.  It is an unpleasant fact, however, that all those sales by more than 250 privately-owned U.S. companies were made to only one Cuban buyer: the Castro regime.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture itself, ‘The key difference in exporting to Cuba, compared to other countries in the region, is that all U.S. agricultural exports must be channeled through one Cuban government agency, ALIMPORT.’

Exporting to Cuba is not about trading with small or mid-size farmers, private businesses and manufacturers around the island, as some of my colleagues would like Americans to believe.  So, it should be no surprise that U.S. products end up on the shelves of regime-owned stores that accept only ‘hard currencies,’ such as the U.S. dollar or Euro, with huge price mark-ups.  Shoppers at these ‘dollar stores’ are mainly tourists.  Little imported food or medicine ever makes it into stores where Cubans shop; neither is it available on ration cards.

It requires a tremendous leap of faith or belief in some extreme and unprecedented economic model -- call it ‘dictator-down economics’ -- to argue or theorize that current or more U.S. sales to Castro's monopolies have or can ever benefit the Cuban ‘people.’  The facts prove otherwise, as has been the case with sales of U.S. food and medicine. So what makes us believe expanded trade with the U.S. would be any different?

As a matter of fact, since December 17th, despite the Obama Administration's efforts to improve relations with the Castro regime, which have included an increase in travel and eased payment terms for agricultural sales, U.S. sales to ALIMPORT during the same period have plummeted by over 50 percent.  The question is:  Why would even more concessions make this manipulation by the Castro regime's monopolies any different?

Let's stop talking about the embargo in vague terms. The embargo, as codified by the U.S. Congress, simply requires the fulfillment of some very basic conditions, which are consistent with the democratic and human rights standards of 34 out of 35 nations in the Western Hemisphere.  Cuba remains the exception.  Though, ironically, Venezuela continues on a downwards spiral away from these standards -- thanks in no small part to Cuba's control over the Chavez/Maduro governments.

When President Obama or some of my colleagues call for the lifting of the embargo, they are asking Congress to unilaterally discard these conditions.  So, I ask them, which of these conditions -- codified in U.S. law -- do they disagree with or oppose that they are willing to unilaterally discard them?  Is it, for example – the condition that Cuba ‘legalizes all political activity?’ The condition that Cuba ‘releases all political prisoners and allows for investigations of Cuban prisons by appropriate international human rights organizations?’ The condition that Cuba ‘dissolves the present Department of State Security in the Cuban Ministry of the Interior, including the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and the Rapid Response Brigades?’

The condition that Cuba ‘makes a public commitment to organizing free and fair elections for a new government?’  The condition that Cuba ‘makes public commitments to and is making demonstrable progress in establishing an independent judiciary; respecting internationally recognized human rights and basic freedoms as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Cuba is a signatory nation; allows the establishment of independent trade unions as set forth in conventions 87 and 98 of the International Labor Organization, and allows the establishment of independent social, economic, and political associations?’

The condition that Cuba give ‘adequate assurances that it will allow the speedy and efficient distribution of assistance to the Cuban people?’  The condition that Cuba is ‘effectively guaranteeing the rights of free speech and freedom of the press, including granting permits to privately owned media and telecommunications companies to operate in Cuba?’  The condition that Cuba is ‘assuring the right to private property?’  The condition that Cuba is ‘taking appropriate steps to return to United States citizens -- and entities which are 50 percent or more beneficially owned by United States citizens -- property taken by the Cuban Government from such citizens and entities on or after January 1, 1959, or to provide equitable compensation to such citizens and entities for such property?’

The condition that Cuba has ‘extradited or otherwise rendered to the United States all persons sought by the United States Department of Justice for crimes committed in the United States?’ Which is it? Which conditions do they disagree with?

If President Obama, as media reports indicate, takes the unprecedented step of abstaining from voting against a Cuban resolution in the United Nations General Assembly criticizing his own nation's law -- which is what the Cuban embargo is -- he would be disavowing these basic conditions.  Think of the horrible message that turning a blind-eye to these basic conditions in U.S. law would send to the Cuban people about the United States' priorities. Think of the horrible message it would send to Cuba's courageous democracy leaders.

Since December 17th, scores of foreign dignitaries, businessmen, and Members of the U.S. Congress have descended upon Havana to meet with Raul Castro and his cronies, while sidelining Cuba's courageous dissidents.  As Cuban independent journalist and blogger, Yoani Sanchez, lamented – ‘a true shower of presidents, foreign ministers and deputies has intensified over Cuba without daily life feeling any kind of relief from such illustrious presences.’

Sadly, as the AP reported, ‘more than 20 U.S. lawmakers have come to Cuba since February without meeting with opposition groups that once were an obligatory stop for congressional delegations.’  The reason U.S. lawmakers don’t meet with human rights activists and political dissidents is because – if they do so – they don’t get a meeting with Raul Castro. I guess to many of my colleagues a photo op is more important.

Perhaps the biggest affront was during the flag-raising ceremony for the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana -- to which no Cuban dissidents were invited. The Secretary of State said publicly this was due to ‘a lack of space’ and this it was a ‘government-to-government’ function.  Yet, images clearly showed there was plenty of space and lots of non-governmental figures on the invitee list.  Can you imagine what the world would be like today if this had been the attitude of the United States towards Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, Havel, Walesa and Mandela?

Meanwhile, adding injury to insult, Cuba's courageous dissident leaders, now neglected by the Obama Administration and Congressional supporters of the new policy -- and even further neglected by foreign dignitaries and unscrupulous businessmen searching for a profit at whatever cost -- are facing a dramatic increase in repression.  Since December 17th, when President Obama announced his new policy, Raul Castro's dictatorship has exponentially increased the number of political arrests, beatings, and detentions.

Just between January and March of this year, politically motivated arrests increased nearly 70 percent, from 178 arrests in the former month to 610 in the latter.  According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an internationally-recognized human rights watchdog, the total number of political arrests during the first nine months of this year were 5,146.  In just nine months, these 5,146 political arrests surpass the year-long tallies recorded for 2010 (2,074 political arrests), 2011 (4,123 political arrests) and 2015 is tragically on-pace to become one of the most repressive years in recent history.

The official number of September arrests alone were 822 – the most in 15 months. They include Danilo Maldonado, a 31-year old artist known as ‘El Sexto,’ who was imprisoned on December 25th, 2014 -- just one week after the new policy was announced.  El Sexto was arrested for painting the names Fidel and Raul on two pigs, which was considered an act of ‘contempt.’  He remains imprisoned without trial or sentence or any justice. Amnesty International has recognized him as a prisoner of conscience.

They also include Zaqueo Baez Guerrero, Ismael Bonet Rene and Maria Josefa Acón Sardinas, a member of The Ladies in White. These three dissidents sought to approach Pope Francis during his recent Mass in Havana to ask for his solidarity with Cuba's political prisoners and democracy movement.  They were dragged away and arrested under the eyes of the international media.  They have been on a hunger and thirst strike since September 20th and are being held at the infamous secret police center for ‘investigations’ at Aldabó and 100th Street in Havana.  I'm very concerned about their well-being.

They also include the case of Digna Rodriguez Ibañez, an Afro-Cuban member of The Ladies in White in Santa Clara, who was attacked by Castro regime agents and pelted with tar. That's right -- with tar.  And Eralisis Frometa Polanco, another member of The Ladies in White, who was pregnant and forcefully aborted due to the violent blows to the stomach she received during a beating for her peaceful activism.  And Daisy Cuello Basulto, also a member of The Ladies in White, whose daughter was arrested, stripped naked and forced to urinate in front of male state security officers, as a means of tormenting her mother.

For 24 straight Sunday's in a row, Cuban dissidents have tried to peacefully demonstrate after Mass under the slogan #TodosMarchamos (#WeAllMarch) and for 24 Sundays in a row they have been intercepted, violently beaten and arrested. This image is of Cuban dissident leader, Antonio Rodiles, a 43-year old intellectual, after having his face literally shattered during one of those peaceful Sunday marches.  Yet, despite the tremendous indignities these dissidents suffer at the hands of the Castro regime, they remain undeterred in their struggle for freedom and democracy for all Cubans.

Rather than shunning these courageous dissidents, the United States should be embracing them.  On the same day that news hit that 882 political arrests were made in September alone, by the Castro regime, Secretary Kerry is in Chile talking about some marine life agreement with Cuba. What about the human Lives in Cuba suffering under this oppression?

The Obama Administration's policy seems to be bringing little comfort to the Cuban people generally, as they continue to flee by land, air and the perilous journey by sea across the Florida Straits, where countless Cubans have lost their lives in search for freedom.  Nearly 32,000 Cubans entered the U.S. in the first nine months of the fiscal year that ended on September 30th, up from about 26,000 migrants who entered last fiscal year, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Fewer than 7,500 Cubans came in 2010.

Finally, M. President, as one of the authors of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 – known as the ‘Libertad Act’ -- and having served as a manager in its conference committee, I'm concerned that the recent regulations and actions being taken by the Treasury and Commerce Departments contravene the purpose and intent of the law. As the final conference committee report of the Libertad Act made clear – ‘It is the intent of the committee of conference that all economic sanctions in force on March 1, 1996, shall remain in effect until they are either suspended or terminated pursuant to the authorities provided in section 204 of this Act (requiring a Presidential determination that a democratic transition is under way in Cuba).’

Those are the conditions I previously addressed.   The report also states that ‘the explicit mandates in this legislation make clear congressional intent that U.S. law be enforced fully and, thereby, provide a basis for strict congressional oversight of executive branch enforcement measures henceforth.’  In furtherance of this intent, the prohibition on U.S. assistance and financing of agricultural sales to Cuba; the prohibition on additional imports from Cuba; and the prohibition of travel relating to tourist activities in the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, are explicit, clear and leave no room for exceptions. These provisions were precisely written to deny U.S. funds to the Cuban regime's repressive machinery, and prohibiting them from being funneled through Castro's monopolies. Yet, that's the -- perhaps unintended -- direction the new regulations are headed-in -- with the tragic, repressive consequences on full display.

Any hope that President Obama's goodwill would elicit a different tone from Raul Castro was further diminished by the Cuban dictator's speech to the United Nations General Assembly last month. Castro dedicated his 17-minute speech almost entirely to bashing the policies of the United States from Latin America to Eastern Europe to the Middle East.  He praised Latin American autocrats in the mold of Hugo Chavez, sided with Putin and Assad, criticized representative democracy and dismissed human rights as a "utopia."  While President Obama referred to the concessions he's already made in his remarks to the United Nations General Assembly, Raul Castro audaciously demanded even more.

We all remember the message President Obama sent to the foes of freedom in first inaugural speech: ‘[W]e will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.’  I urge President Obama to follow his own doctrine and reconsider some of the unmerited and reciprocated generosity in his new policy -- for Raul Castro's fist clearly remains clenched, yet the President's hand is still fully extended.

He claims that those who don’t agree with his Cuba policy are stuck in the past, but it’s the Castro regime that’s stuck in the past – still living their misguided Cold War dream – and the world hasn’t insisted they move forward.  Instead we are rewarding them for their intransigence.  Unless we challenge them we will not see real change.

The fact is -- hope and change do not come easily, they don’t just happen.  Like any parent with a child, they won’t change unless you challenge them and give them a reason.  Like Congress, it needs to be challenged to change.  And so with Cuba. The world needs to challenge the regime or change will never come – not give in and give everything.  To do so only strengthens their resolve to hold on to their Cold War dream and prolongs the day when we can truly say to the world: Cuba es Libre.