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In CSIS Speech, Menendez Addresses Threats to Democracy in Latin America

Honors Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as a champion for American leadership in the Western Hemisphere


WASHINGTON D.C. – Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today delivered a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) addressing threats to democracy in Latin America, and calling on the Trump Administration to reclaim the United States’ status as a champion for democracy abroad. In his remarks, Senator Menendez highlighted the brutality of the regimes in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, as well as other challenges throughout the region.

The Senator concluded by praising the long service of Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who has partnered with him over the years on issues of democracy and governance in the Western Hemisphere.

Below are the Senator’s prepared remarks:


“Thank you to Daniel and CSIS for the invitation to discuss today’s theme: how we can work together to advance freedom in our hemisphere.

I must say, there aren’t many things that will keep me in Washington on a Friday, but I would never miss an opportunity honor a truly irreplaceable Congresswoman and friend, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Allow me to also recognize Administrator Mark Green for his dedicated work on democratic governance, as well as NED President Carl Gershman, a tireless champion for human rights and democracy around the world.

Looking out across the Americas, I see a region of unique potential, dynamism and growth… But also mounting challenges.

Today, our hemisphere struggles with two migration and refugee crises, including one that reaches our border. The region is home to numerous cities where per capita murder rates surpass those in war zones. And, with consolidated dictatorships in Cuba and Venezuela, and a fledgling dictatorship underway in Nicaragua, it is fair to say that a future of robust democratic governance, prosperity, and the rule of law in the Americas is not guaranteed.

The United States must play a leadership role in supporting the infrastructure that will allow freedom, the rule of law, and democratic governance to flourish and pave the way for inclusive economic growth throughout the region.

We will need more than three-word catch phrases to get the job done. We need to wield the full array of our diplomatic and development tools.

That means fully-staffed institutions and embassies, sanctions paired with real strategies, foreign assistance budgets that match our priorities, and an unwavering commitment to our values in our foreign policy.

Unfortunately, despite nearly two years in office, the Trump Administration has failed to grasp the importance of sustainable, values-driven diplomacy.

When our government denounces the deterioration of democracy in our hemisphere, but ignores the brutal crimes committed by our allies elsewhere in the world; when we condemn Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, manufactured by the Maduro regime, but we fail to take all possible steps to abate the humanitarian tragedy suffered by the people of Yemen; when we fail at the highest levels of our government to act with moral clarity and commitment to our values; our allies and our adversaries take note.

Our country’s stature as a leader of nations flounders. And here in our hemisphere, the catchy slogans about democracy and human rights ring hollow. Overcoming these challenges demands we understand and respond to the truth of conditions on the ground. 

In Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua; that means grappling with complex realities in which evolving authoritarian tactics have enabled anti-democratic leadership structures to retain power.

In April, Cubans awoke to find that their president wasn’t a Castro for the first time in more than five decades.

Since then, we’ve seen Cuba’s new leader feign allegiance to modernity, all the while firmly wedding himself to the Cuban Communist Party’s antiquated agenda.

We must be clear-eyed about his effort to rewrite Cuba’s constitution. It may provide the minimal trappings of reforms, but it ingrains further constraints on human rights and the fundamental freedoms of the Cuban people.

Last week, Amnesty International published its analysis of Cuba’s new constitution saying, ‘it maintains undue restrictions on freedom of expression.’ ‘It stands to continue online censorship.’

It is ‘unlikely to strengthen the independence of the judiciary or protect the right to fair trial’ and it ‘continues to place undue restrictions on freedom of assembly, demonstration, and association.’

This is not a modern constitution. It’s a sham that will serve purely as a framework for Cuba’s dictatorship for decades to come.

That’s why earlier this month it was so important to see former Latin American presidents and leading intellectuals join Cuban democracy activists Jose Daniel Ferrer, Guillermo Fariñas, Berta Soler and Iván Hernández in defense of basic rights and individual freedoms, which are absent in the document being forced upon the Cuban people.

Just as the Cuban government seeks to modernize its authoritarian control at home, we’re learning more about its efforts to control citizens abroad, cultivating foreign government accomplices in the process.

The government’s ‘foreign medical missions’ offer one horrifying example. An ongoing investigation by the online platform Diario de Cuba details how this program effectively embodies modern day slavery.

Ordering citizens abroad to select countries, the Cuban government then garnishes 75 percent of their medical workers’ wages, denies them family visits, and negotiates secret agreements with foreign governments to keep them in indentured servitude.

Alarmingly, this investigation shows how the Cuban government exploited the Brazilian government and the Pan American Health Organization in the process, and I have serious questions about whether their participation constituted involvement in forced labor and human trafficking.

This is just the latest example of Cuba’s ongoing effort to exploit regional dynamics and export its anti-democratic agenda across the Americas.

Everyone in this room knows that nowhere in our hemisphere has Cuba’s perverse tutelage caused more catastrophe than in Venezuela.

For nearly two decades, the Cuban regime has benefitted from a parasitic relationship with Caracas, exporting its repressive tactics and strategies for guaranteed economic collapse, in exchange for deep discounts on Venezuelan oil.

Earlier this year, Moises Naím described Havana’s role in Venezuela as one designed to keep its allies in power by implanting Cuban police state techniques like: ‘constant but selective repression, extortion and bribery, espionage and persecution.’

But this doesn’t cover the totality of the Cuban regime’s efforts. Earlier this week, activists presenting evidence to the OAS about the increasingly systematic use of torture in Venezuela noted that Cuban officials were present in a dozen cases. While horrifying, I cannot say I’m surprised.

Beyond Cuba’s role in Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro and the criminals in his cabinet have led a campaign to plunder state coffers, destroy the country’s economy, dismantle remaining democratic institutions, jail political opponents, like National Assembly Deputy Juan Requesens, and drive countless other opposition leaders into exile, and they’ve done so with reckless abandon.

Maduro has finalized Venezuela’s twenty-year transition from one of the most developed nations in the Americas to one gripped by political crisis and untold humanitarian tragedy.

The United Nations has stated that more than 3 million Venezuelans have fled hunger, extreme poverty and lawlessness at home.

Unsurprisingly, the region is now dealing with a full blown refugee and migration crisis, one of a magnitude that mirrors the Syrian exodus that has engulfed Europe in recent years and one that requires a response of a similar magnitude.

That is why, in September, I introduced bipartisan legislation to forge a coordinated response to the crisis in Venezuela. My bill would expand upon the assistance provided by Administrator Green and work with regional partners to address Venezuela’s humanitarian collapse.

It would require the Administration to work with our partners to build legal frameworks for implementing their own sanctions.

And, it would require the Departments of State, Treasury, and Justice to develop joint initiatives to investigate, freeze and recover the billions of dollars that Maduro has stolen from his people.

There is no time for delay. As we speak, it appears that Maduro is set on consecrating his fraudulent election and inaugurating himself for another illegitimate term.

We must not let this farce go unchallenged.

Lingering on the topic of illegitimate presidents, it is worth noting that that Daniel Ortega could give Maduro a run for his ill-begotten money on running fraudulent elections over the past decade.

We’ve long witnessed his slow and quiet campaign against Nicaragua’s democratic institutions, co-opting the legislature, judiciary, and electoral council.

But none of that compares with the brutal wave of indiscriminate violence that Daniel Ortega, his wife and Vice President Rosario Murillo have recently unleashed on the Nicaraguan people through the police and government-backed paramilitaries.

In one case, his forces shot a fifteen-year-old boy, Álvaro Conrado, while at a peaceful protest. Among his last words were, ‘me duele respirar’ - it hurts to breathe. Think about that for a moment. Those are the dying words of a child victimized by his government for exercising the basic right of free expression.

But firing at 15 year olds is apparently not enough for Ortega and Murillo. 

They have accused Catholic bishops of being coup plotters, their armed thugs even firing at a church as protesters sought refuge inside.

Put simply, their brutality has stripped away any remaining veneer of democracy in Nicaragua. The United States cannot ignore such violence in our own hemisphere.

That’s why I am pleased to have partnered with my friend Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and led Senate efforts to approve legislation this week that will hold Ortega, Murillo and their accomplices accountable for their campaign of extrajudicial killings.

Our legislation will ensure that U.S. sanctions target the Ortega regime without inflicting even more pain Nicaraguan people. It requires increased intelligence reporting on government corruption. And, it offers much-needed support for a negotiated solution to this crisis.

Before I talk more about my friend Ileana, we must recognize that the deficits of democratic governance in Latin America extend beyond Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

In recent months, Americans have witnessed not only a migration of asylum-seekers our southern border but also a morally repugnant response on the part of the Trump Administration.

The simplistic coverage of their migration and the characterization by the President of these asylum-seekers as invaders does the American people no favors.

We will not solve this crisis without addressing the root causes of migration, including the weak state of democracy and the rule of law in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Citizens from these countries aren’t just fleeing violence or extreme poverty. They’re fleeing countries where their governments act with impunity and ignore and abuse their fundamental rights.

When Hondurans see government security forces kill two dozen people protesting the outcome of a highly-questionable election and a year later not one person has been sentenced, what does that say about the future of their democracy?

When Guatemalans witness the dismantling of a United Nations anti-corruption body, knowing that four of their last five presidents have been indicted for graft and money laundering, what does that say about governance in their country?

When Salvadorans not only live in fear of gang violence and forced servitude, but know that less than 10 percent of crimes committed will be prosecuted and sentenced, what does that say about the rule of law?

It is well past-time that we address these core issues, because as we’ve learned in recent months, aside from their moral dubiousness, the Trump Administration’s policies of caging children and tear gassing families have not served as a quote-unquote ‘deterrent.’

We need robust U.S. engagement that strengthens institutions, bolsters the rule of law, and builds a respect for human rights throughout Central America. We need strategies that will help create the conditions for inclusive economic growth, so that citizens can find opportunities within their own borders.

Threatening to cut off aid to Central American countries, as the President is wont to do - seemingly against the advice of professional diplomats – will not address these causes; will not serve our interests, nor the interests of the Central American people.

We must be honest about conditions on the ground and act with clear-eyed conviction of purpose.

We cannot ignore inconvenient truths. Last year, the State Department sent Congress a report heralding the Honduran government’s progress on governance and human rights at the exact moment that protesters were being killed in the streets. This kind of messaging from the Administration not only damages our credibility, but weakens the prospects for reform.

Similarly, when State Department communications call Guatemala a strong counter-narcotics partner at the exact moment Guatemalan security forces armed with machine guns are driving U.S.-donated jeeps past the U.S. Embassy in an attempt to send a political message of intimidation. It belies the facts in front of us and only undercuts the rule of law.

It’s well past time we restore U.S. global leadership on democracy and governance issues in the Americas and beyond.

It’s time for the Trump Administration to stop proposing cuts to the State Department budget and the foreign assistance funding needed to effectively advance our national security interests abroad and promote our core democratic principles.

It’s time the Trump Administration stop threatening to cut assistance to Central America as a remedy to migration at our southern border when we know it will only exacerbate the situation.

And, more than talk of swagger, we need serious investments in our diplomats, who are the greatest problem solvers on the planet.

Political pressure and sanctions are limited in their effectiveness if they are not reinforced by skilled, trained diplomats pushing hard-nosed diplomacy.

If we’re serious about resolving the crises in Venezuela and Nicaragua, we must act with the courage of our convictions and engage regional partners on diplomatic strategy to forge negotiations.

Of course, progress on these issues hinges on bipartisan cooperation in Congress.

And I’ve always been pleased to work across the aisle with my dear friend, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, ‘Illy’, whose voice, service and leadership will be very much missed within the halls of Congress. 

I have personally seen Ileana’s tenacity in fighting for her community in Florida, for those who are oppressed and discriminated against, in promoting U.S. values, ideals, and freedom around the world.

Her lifelong service—first as a schoolteacher in Miami who then rose to be the first Latina elected to the U.S. Congress— has inspired thousands of next generation Hispanic leaders.

A first-generation Cuban American whose family fled the repressive Castro regime, she has a unique perspective on the values that make America great. A woman of many firsts, she was the very first woman to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee, paving the way for women in foreign policy leadership roles and being a consequential voice on the challenges facing our nation.

For those of us who’ve worked with Ileana over the years, we know her as someone never hesitates to across the aisle to get things done.

I’m honored to have collaborated with her on many issues throughout our careers. From speaking out against dictatorial regimes in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua to working together on meaningful legislation—such as the Libertad Act in 1996 and most recently the NICA Act—Ileana has been a champion on freedom and democracy.

She has a keen understanding of the challenges facing the United States, the region, and the world, and I’ve always trusted her to respond with moral clarity, to speak out against tyranny, and stand up for what’s right even when it’s not politically convenient.

And, I have to say, she’s pretty great on Twitter.

Ileana, it’s been a pleasure working with you. Thank you for always believing in the mission of public service. I appreciate your friendship and wish you all the best.

So thank you again for an invitation to be part of this esteemed group of individuals, and I look forward to continuing to work with you all for a brighter, freer, and more prosperous hemisphere in which all citizens benefit.”