WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, submitted the following statement for the Senate record after Cuba’s National Assembly replaced Raul Castro with his handpicked successor Miguel Diaz-Canel.
I rise today to address Cuba’s undemocratic leadership transition and its implications for the Cuban people and U.S. foreign policy.
Today, in a highly scripted process, Cuba’s National Assembly replaced Raul Castro, the country’s gerontocratic dictator, with heir apparent Miguel Diaz Canel. While this marks the first time in nearly 60 years that a “Castro” does not occupy the Cuban presidency, this transition by no means portends the desperately needed political and economic change that Cubans desire, nor that the Castro regime is no longer in charge.
This week’s transition – characterized as a ‘coronation’ and an attempt to ‘institutionalize the Castro regime’ – is a ruse. This spectacle does not remotely come close to meeting internationally recognized standards for a democratic election. Cuba remains a single party, authoritarian state that denies its citizens their most fundamental freedoms.
Some contend that Mr. Diaz Canel could be a ‘Cuban Mikhail Gorbachev’; and in seeking to reform the Castros’ broken model, he will stumble into the collapse of Cuba’s Communist system. Such thinking fails to account for the fact that Mr. Diaz Canel’s political ascent was forged under the same Communist Party that has perpetuated the Castros’ decades-long stranglehold on Cuba.
More importantly, Raul Castro will maintain his position as the First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party. As Article 5 of Cuba’s authoritarian constitution states, “The Communist Party of Cuba […] is the superior ruling force of society and the State…” Under such a structure, does anyone honestly think that Raul Castro won’t continue calling the shots while his handpicked dauphin occupies the role of president?
As this political farce unfolds, I want to make brief observations about three aspects of Raul Castro’s legacy – the state of human rights in the country, the state of the Cuban economy, and the crisis in Venezuela – which Miguel Diaz Canel now owns.
Raul Castro will certainly leave an enduring human rights legacy. In the last three years, the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation – Cuba’s leading independent human rights organization – documented more than 20,000 arbitrary detentions of activists. Moreover, the State Department’s 2016 Human Rights Report on Cuba stated that the Cuban government routinely denies its citizens fair trials, monitors and censors private communications, suppresses freedoms of speech, assembly and press, and employs threats, physical assault and intimidation tactics against its own people.
Raul Castro’s economic legacy will be the maintenance of the dual currency system that distorts the national economy and subjugates Cuban citizens to second-class status in their own country. Foreign companies seeking opportunities in Cuba are still forced to conduct business with the military and its vast network of shell companies. ‘Independent entrepreneurs’ are a complete misnomer, as individuals continue to operate in a byzantine system that prevents them from owning their own companies and subjects them to licensing and tax requirements designed to stifle entrepreneurial activity.
Additionally, as well-connected members of the Cuban Communist Party and the military use their positions for self-enrichment, average Cubans face a status quo of limited economic opportunities. As the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ grows in Cuba, it appears that the Castros’ Orwellian dystopia is a system in which all Cubans are equal, but some Cubans are more equal than others.
Finally, looking outward, at the Summit of the Americas last week, where leaders of the Western Hemisphere grappled with an unprecedented migration and humanitarian crisis, Raul Castro may have been absent, but the legacy of ruin in Venezuela was front and center. In a July 2017 Senate hearing, Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro described Cuba’s presence in Venezuela as an “occupation army.” While Nicolas Maduro clings to his failed ideological, military, and economic alliance with the Castro regime, Venezuelans are suffering from food shortages, a collapsed healthcare system, and rampant crime.
This brutal reality is the Castros’ legacy for the Cuban people and the hemisphere. And, in his role as First Vice President since 2013, Mr. Diaz Canel has been Raul Castro’s first accomplice. So while Cubans will never stop dreaming for a future in which they are guaranteed human rights and are truly free to pursue economic prosperity, they know that Mr. Diaz Canel represents little more than a continuation of the Castro regime.
Turning to U.S. foreign policy, to those who would argue Cuba is ready to be a member of the community of nations, let me point to the attacks against American diplomats in Havana. U.S. personnel have faced an unprecedented ordeal. More than 50 unexplained attacks have affected more than two dozen American citizens, with some cases involving lasting, physical brain damage. Let anyone who harbors doubts about these incidents refer to the Trudeau Government’s announcement this week regarding incidents affecting Canadian officials and changes to Canada’s diplomatic presence in Cuba. These attacks are real. People are suffering.
Cuban officials attempting to dismiss these egregious attacks is yet another sign of the disingenuous nature of the dictatorship. Whether the attacks were perpetrated by Cuban intelligence services or involve the participation of another country’s intelligence services, it is unfathomable that a government that prides itself on running a police state would even try to feign ignorance about these incidents. I refuse to accept the premise that members of the Castro regime are not in some way complicit or have no information about who is responsible. The State Department must continue its investigation of these attacks.
The Trump Administration must also move beyond presidential promises towards a substantive strategy that pressures the regime to undertake serious reforms to advance democratic values and human rights, and end its support of failed leadership in Venezuela.
First, the United States must remain steadfast in supporting democratic activists in Cuba. While President Trump claims to support those fearlessly advocating for their rights, his budget proposals tell a different story. Alarmingly, his FY2018 request to Congress proposed zero dollars for democracy programs in Cuba, while his FY2019 budget only requested $10 million. In contrast to his statements, this amounts to rejecting support for the Cuban people and our interests.
Additionally, as the U.S. Government hones new tools to advance accountability for human rights violations, we should utilize targeted Global Magnitsky sanctions to put a spotlight on the Cuban officials responsible for these abuses.
Second, although senior Administration officials have been critical of business deals with the Cuban military that enrich the Castro regime in the process, the regulations the Administration introduced in November 2017 fail to address key elements of commerce that benefit Cuba’s dictatorship. In the coming weeks, I will launch a Congressional review of Treasury and Commerce regulations in order to end unnecessary loopholes that benefit the regime.
Finally, as leaders from the Americas and Europe come together to address the multifaceted crisis in Venezuela, they must seriously confront Cuba’s role in Venezuela’s collapse. To date, efforts to coordinate increased international pressure on the Venezuelan government have given the Castro regime a free pass. There was widespread support in the hemisphere for Peru’s decision to not invite Nicolas Maduro to the Summit of the Americas due to the authoritarian nature of his government. Yet no one – including the Trump Administration – held Cuba’s dictatorship to the same standard. It is time for the Administration to reverse this trend and call for a coordinated diplomatic response to Cuba’s longstanding role in Venezuela’s emergence as a failed state.
In closing, I urge my colleagues join me in speaking out against the undemocratic political spectacle in Cuba this week. We must join together to pursue a comprehensive policy towards Cuba that pressures regime officials to loosen their stranglehold on Cuba’s economy and political system and that advances the true democratic and justice reforms the Cuban people so desperately desire.