November 30, 2021

Chairman Menendez Opening Remarks at Full Committee Hearing on U.S. Policy on Democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today delivered the below opening remarks at this morning’s full Committee hearing on United States policy on democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean. Testifying before the Committee were the Honorable Brian A. Nichols, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and the Honorable Todd Robinson, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

“Our hemisphere is at a critical inflection point,” Chairman Menendez said, condemning growing challenges to democratic institutions and relentless assaults on basic rights by oppressive authoritarian leaders across the region. “We must help democracies deliver, especially as they recover from the economic and social impact of the pandemic. We must continue supporting civil society efforts to reverse democratic backsliding. We must help pro-democracy movements harness the power of technology to confront dictatorships.” 

Find a copy of Chairman Menendez’s remarks as delivered below.

“This hearing on U.S. policy on democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean will come to order.

In March, this Committee hosted Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro to review the state of democracy in the region.

We heard concerns about the uptick in fraudulent elections, shrinking space for civil society and independent media, efforts to politicize judicial institutions, and the loss of hope in a region plagued by insecurity and kleptocracy. While the Inter-American Democratic Charter marked its 20th anniversary in September, the harsh reality is that we are witnessing a fraying of democratic consensus in the Americas.

Given Secretary General Almagro’s diagnosis, it is critical that the Biden administration continue efforts to restore the defense of democracy as a central pillar of U.S. foreign policy. In his June memorandum, the President made it clear that combatting kleptocracy is a U.S. national security priority, and American diplomats are again using the language of human rights.

After four years of the Trump administration failing to stand up for our fundamental values, we have acutely felt the effects, and these initial steps are welcome. But, we must do more, because the truth is that, since March, the situation in the hemisphere has become even more challenging.

In Cuba, the Díaz-Canel regime attacked, detained, and disappeared its citizens for demanding fundamental freedoms during unprecedented countrywide protests in July. The regime paired physical assaults with internet shutdowns and decrees criminalizing free expression on social media. Terrified of the Cuban people’s desire for change, it militarized the entire island to prevent protests in November.

While I welcomed the Administration’s four rounds of targeted sanctions, we must move more aggressively to hold security forces accountable. And we must launch a strategic effort to demilitarize the Cuban economy in parallel with our support for the Cuban people.

In Nicaragua, the Ortega regime’s relentless campaign to jail and persecute political opponents, civil society, and independent media resulted in the recent sham elections. This month, Congress passed my bipartisan RENACER Act, ushering in new era of international accountability.

I’m pleased that the Biden administration is already implementing the RENACER Act with new targeted sanctions and a blanket visa ban on Nicaraguan officials complicit in the dismantling of democracy – the toughest measures Ortega has ever faced.

In Haiti, following President Moise’s assassination, gangs now control large parts of the country and kidnap and terrorize civilians, including American missionaries and children. I look forward to hearing how the Administration is working to restore security, facilitate dialogue between civil society and political actors, and help chart a Haitian-led path to new elections to overcome this chaos.

Since March, the Maduro regime has continued its campaign of torture, disappearances, arbitrary jailings, and manipulation of essential supplies in order to subjugate the Venezuelan people. It has walked away from negotiations with the National Unity Platform—talks that could help address urgent humanitarian needs and set the country on a path towards recovery. Instead, the regime prioritized holding deeply flawed elections that no credible democratic actor has called free and fair.

We have observed the surgical deconstruction of El Salvador’s justice systems, as President Bukele appears intent on taking the training wheels off his autocratic project. And, in Brazil, President Bolsonaro is plagiarizing the Trumpian playbook by invoking the spectre of political violence and fraud in advance of next year’s elections.

It is no wonder, given the state of democracy in the Americas, that irregular population movements are at an all-time high.

Our hemisphere is at a critical inflection point.

We must help democracies deliver, especially as they recover from the economic and social impact of the pandemic.

We must continue supporting civil society efforts to reverse democratic backsliding.

We must help pro-democracy movements harness the power of technology to confront dictatorships.

The upcoming Summit for Democracy presents an opportunity to coalesce around a global strategy to confront repressive regimes and strengthen democracies. It is my sincere hope that it produces tangible outcomes.

As we said in March, the cost of inaction is too great and it is increasing exponentially. When democracies in the Americas fail to provide for their people, those looking for a better life will come knocking on our door. If we do not increase our engagement in the hemisphere, others from farther away – China, Russia – will be only too happy to gain a stronger foothold to exploit tensions and divisions.

I look forward to discussing these and other issues as they relate to the hemisphere and to this hearing.

I now turn to the Ranking Member for his remarks.”


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