U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez said today that Democrats, not Republicans, have led the way in pushing for freedom and democracy in Cuba.
He accused the Trump administration of abandoning efforts to push for human rights around the world and said the Biden administration would do a better job.
He said he continues to support U.S. sanctions against Cuba, but wants to find a way to allow exiles to send money to their relatives on the island without benefiting the Cuban government.
Former political prisoner Hector Caraballo asked Menendez if he thought he could put together a bipartisan strategy toward Cuba that would endure even after changes in administrations. The senator said that was his intention, but was vague on how he would do it.
Menendez did not sign an April 7 letter from Sen. Marco Rubio and other lawmakers asking President Biden to set aside at least $30 million for Office of Cuba Broadcasting and at least $20 million for democracy programs targeting Cuba.
Menendez said he planned to present to the Biden administration a white paper outlining his Cuba policy recommendations.
Menendez made his remarks during a virtual conversation organized by Cuban American Democrats. Horacio Sierra, president of the Miami-Dade Cuban-American Democratic Club, led the session. Excerpts of the conversation are below (download audio here):
So Senator Menendez, as you know, being a Cuban-American Democrat can be difficult in Miami where the Cuban diaspora is sensitive to the way Republicans exploited our community’s trauma by incorrectly labeling us right as communist or socialist. So what is your advice on messaging democratic values and being proud to be a Cuban American Democrat?
Sen. Bob Menendez
Look, first of all, my view is that it is Democrats who universally have stood for the values of democracy and human rights. It is our party and administrations such as President Biden. That once again has brought into focus democracy and human rights and being one of the pillars of our foreign diplomacy globally, something that was abandoned largely by the four years of the Trump administration, in which they would deal with anyone, including authoritarian leaders, who were oppressing their people in one form of another. So it is first to remind that we stand in solidarity with the Cuban people, that we are the biggest advocates for democracy and human rights, that it was Bill Clinton who signed the Libertad Act, which, just for historical purposes, that people forget.
And as a threshold issue, to make it very clear that we take a back seat to know him in terms of promoting the human rights and democratic opportunities for the people of Cuba. And then, if we get past that threshold question, that I think Cuban American voters are actually much more progressive than people think. Why? Well, you know, they want to see, you know, and Social Security and Medicare for Abuelita. They want to see financial aid for sus hijos. They want to be able to achieve many of the things that we Democrats are at the forefront of providing, that all the programs that were created by Democrats, promoted by Democrats, and that are maintained by Democrats. And if we make the connection between our party’s history and those things that are so important to people, I think we can be much stronger.
And lastly, we have to speak about our values. As Democrats, we often speak about programs, but we don’t speak about our values. And I think that our community is one that has a great receptivity to values. And then you put on those values, how we implement those values through our policies. And when we do that, I think we can strike a responsive chord with a broader community at large.
When will the Biden Harris administration address opening consular services at the American embassy in Cuba? Families need help with reunification efforts, sending remittances, et cetera. We’ve received email emails from many individuals whose families are now stuck in limbo in Guyana and other countries awaiting processing of their visas because the Havana embassy is closed.
Well, thank you Vicki, for your question. You know, first of all, I think we have to recognize that our embassy faced in Havana, a number of challenges in recent years. There were the attacks on U.S. diplomats serving in Havana that made real harm to our people attacks, attacks that had serious consequences on the health of U.S. personnel and families, attacks that the U.S. is still investigating in terms of the absence of serious cooperation by the regime. That was an effect. And then, we had the pandemic where many of our embassies across the world, including in Havana, have been forced to reduce consulate services in order to protect the health of our personnel. But I am very aware of the impact that this has had on Cuban families. Our embassy in Havana is years behind in visa processing and the U.S. embassy in Guyana has tried to step in, but there are too many delays. So I am speaking directly to the Secretary of State Tony Blinken about this issue. This is going to be part my white paper presentation, that we have to find ways to dramatically up our game, the question of processing visas, reuniting families and giving people an opportunity, hopefully sooner rather than later, but I can’t give you an exact time, but I think it will be among the things that I’m presenting to the administration. I would venture to say that it will be one of those priority items.
Thank you for asking that Vicky as a follow-up, in terms of one of the other popular questions, I’m sure you get all the time is what are your views on what to do with the embargo, given that some people feel that it hasn’t accomplished enough in close to 60 years? Is there a middle ground where we can still support human rights in Cuba, try to pressure the government to have democratic reforms and make sure that Cuban people aren’t suffering. Like where are we at this point in time with the embargo?
Look, you know, the, the flip side of that question is that that in fact during the Obama administration’s efforts of openings to Cuba, the regime did absolutely nothing in terms of openings for the Cuban people. They did nothing in terms of openings for civil society. They did nothing in terms of improving the plight of hunger among Cuban families. They did nothing about reducing their bite on remittances that we send to Cuba. So, while it was not as long as the embargo, the reality is that it, that it showed nothing in terms of any movement whatsoever. So I do think there are ways to think about how we challenge the regime, but still try to help the Cuban people. Title 2 of the Libertad Act, which I wrote, is actually all about helping civil society inside of Cuba.
So for example, should we be saying, OK, well, if American businesses are going to be in Cuba, should they not have to ultimately abide by the Sullivan principles? The Sullivan principles were those principles that we held in South Africa during apartheid that said, yes, you can operate, but you must hire directly, you know, the individuals who you operate with in order to break apartheid. In this case, it would be in order to break the back of the state in terms of its control over Cuban workers, who they send to, for example, hotels and pay a fraction of their wages, even as their, the money gets paid to the regime. And, you know, should we not be looking at other opportunities on how we can challenge the regime and get international support for that challenge, and then find ways in which we can domestically help the Cuban people. For example, we should challenge them to permit a Western Union or other money services to directly provide remittances to the Cuban people that would take money away from the regime, but it would give more money to the Cuban people. Those are some of the examples I think we have. And with that I’m unfortunately going to have to go.