Sen. Menendez: Obama's Cuba Visit Means Castros Win, Democracy Loses

Monday, March 28, 2016
By U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) in The Star-Ledger:

Obama's Cuba visit means the Castros win, democracy loses 

My mother made the courageous decision to flee a tyrannized Cuba in the 1950s and bring her children to the United States, where I was born.

And like many Americans, whether of Eastern European ancestry growing up hearing of the oppression of the yoke of totalitarianism, or Irish-Americans well-learned in the poverty, famine and conflict that defined generations, I am well-versed in the ongoing struggles of the Cuban people.

I will not ascribe to the "Blame America" club for vicious abuses of human rights, systemic exploitation of Cuban labor, unrelenting repression, and stifling censorship. There is one source of injustice in Cuba: The Castro regime. It is not United States policies and it is not the United States embargo.

To be sure, Europe, Canada, Latin America and the rest of the world have invested millions upon millions of dollars in commerce and in travel to Cuba, yet all of that money and tourism have not led to an iota of positive change in the way the regime rules or the Cuban people live. Cubans are free to buy food and goods from across the globe, yet little or no imported food or medicine makes it onto regime-owned store shelves in which they can afford to shop.

Don't blame America for the thousands of Cubans who have been arrested, detained and imprisoned by Castro for peacefully protesting the regime. Last month alone, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights documented 1,141 political arrests by the Castro regime, on top of 1,447 in January — that's after we forfeited U.S. leverage.

And don't blame America because Joanne Chesimard — convicted killer of New Jersey State Trooper, Werner Foerster — lives free on the island our President just visited. As the U.S. opens tourism flights to the island, N.J. State Police Superintendent Colonel Rick Fuentes and Trooper Foerster's family remain waiting for the day we can bring Chesimard to justice here at home.

The Obama Administration negotiated a deal with the Castros, but no amount of unilateral concessions from the U.S. will move Raul Castro to honor the basic human rights of the Cubans his government exploits. I understand the desire to build a legacy, but there is a central issue of freedom and democracy that has not been addressed. 

We know how to do this right. Before President Obama ever traveled to Burma — a country with notorious human rights abuses and with which this administration began to engage — the U.S. first demanded, and received, real action by the Burmese to address their human rights record. To be sure, the Burmese government agreed to meet nearly a dozen benchmarks as part of this "action for action" engagement, including granting the Red Cross access to prisons, establishing a U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Office, release of political prisoners, and other material steps. It's a work in progress. But unlike the case of Cuba, there is work and there is progress.

What is clear right now to those of us who have been close observers, is that the dictatorship of the Castros — and not the voice of democracy — has triumphed. Blaming the United States for the Cuban people's woes is misplaced. It is the regime that profoundly controls every aspect of the Cuban political and economic system and it is the regime which will use sanctions relief and new-found proceeds only to fortify its repressive systems of control, rather than passing them along to everyday Cubans.

Unless the Castros are compelled to change the way they govern the island and the way they exploit its people, no victory can be claimed. The Castro Regime will remain the sole beneficiary of any one-sided policy changes by the United States.

I have spent my entire career fighting the injustice of the oppressed island nation my parents fled from years ago. And, in fact, I would love nothing more than to be able to go to Cuba, to trace my roots, and to witness true democratic change. But I am realistic — changes to U.S. policy without corresponding changes from the Castros have only pushed that dream farther away.