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Senator Cardin Opening Remarks at Hearing on “U.S.-Cuban Relations – The Way Forward”

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the following opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, at today’s full committee hearing on “U.S. Cuba Policy – The Way Forward.”

“There is no question that on December 17 of last year, President Obama’s historical speech marked a watershed moment in U.S. policy towards Cuba.  The President’s action brought with it a new opportunity to forge a bilateral relationship that will strengthen our efforts to advance and defend U.S. national interests, and will allow our government and our citizens to expand support for the Cuban people.

“That day, we also celebrated the long overdue return to the United States of Maryland resident Alan Gross.  As we all know, Alan, a development specialist with decades of experience, was jailed unjustly for his efforts to support Cuba’s small Jewish community and his imprisonment came at a great personal cost to both him and his family.  I want to commend President Obama for his leadership in securing Alan’s release on humanitarian grounds and bringing him home to his family and friends.

“Today’s hearing provides an important opportunity to review the advances achieved under the Administration’s new Cuba policy and to understand the strategy for moving forward.  Without a doubt, this is a complicated process and it will take time to achieve the progress we want to see. 

“I recognize that here on the Committee, there are differing views – on both sides of the aisle – about the direction of U.S. policy toward Cuba.  Some of our colleagues would like to see the Administration go further and some have concerns about the steps we have taken already.

“In this context, I want to underscore that there is one issue that unites us. And, that is that we all stand together in our aspirations to see the Cuban people have the opportunity to build a society where human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected, where democratic values and political pluralism are tolerated, and where individuals can work unobstructed to improve their living conditions.

“We also share concerns about critical issues, such as the Cuban government’s ongoing abuse of human rights and the presence of American fugitives in Cuba, especially those wanted for the murder of U.S. law enforcement officers.

“But, the central question is: how can we best advance these aspirations while also addressing these concerns? It goes without saying that our previous policy did not achieve the progress that we wanted to see, and so a new approach is needed. 

“President Obama has laid out a new path based on the belief that principled engagement will bring more results. I think that this is the right path for the following reasons:

“First, for far too long, the Cuban government has used U.S. policy as an excuse to justify its shortcomings and the hardships the Cuban people face.  The Cuban government also has exploited U.S. policy for diplomatic gains, focusing international debate about what the U.S. should do, rather than about what Cuba needs to do to better provide for its citizens.

“This has been a particular challenge here in our own hemisphere, where governments – including some of our closest partners – have long preferred to speak out critically about U.S. policy rather than about conditions on the island. The President’s policy has reset the geopolitical calculus in the region and will provide new opportunities for cooperation with our Latin American and Caribbean partners.

“The recent Summit of the Americas in Panama showcased this point clearly, and both President Obama and the U.S. were praised widely for their leadership.

“In one particularly important development, the presidents of Costa Rica and Uruguay joined President Obama in a meeting with civil society from across the region, including two leading activists from Cuba – Manuel Cuesta Morua and Lartiza Diversant. I would just note that thanks to an invitation from Senator Boxer, the Western Hemisphere subcommittee had a chance to hear from Mr. Cuesta Morua in February.

“While a meeting of this nature might seem innocuous, it is the first time – ever – that sitting Latin America presidents have every joined the U.S. president in a meeting with members of the Cuban opposition.  Such an act would have been unthinkable six months ago. 

“And, I want recognize the courage and leadership of President Solis of Costa Rica and President Vazquez of Uruguay.

“Second, despite differences we may have with a government, our foreign policy should always endeavor to support that country’s people to the greatest degree possible.  Our disagreements with the Cuban government are well known and many.  But, over time, we have allowed those disagreements to get in the way of developing a strategy that utilizes all of our resources to empower the people of Cuba.

“When President Obama first came to office in 2009, he created greater flexibility for Cuban Americans to visit their families in Cuba and to send remittances to the island.  

“These early policy changes have provided important support to an emerging class of Cuban entrepreneurs that have been able to launch new economic initiatives, often working out of their own homes.  While the Cuban government still limits these activities widely and not all Cubans are able to take advantage of them, U.S. policy is directly responsible for helping the Cuban people improve their living conditions and achieve a new degree of independence from the Cuban government.

“The President’s December announcement went one step further and has made it easier for U.S. citizens to engage in purposeful travel to Cuba.  Whether for academic and philanthropic or business reasons, U.S. citizens will now have greater opportunities to take part in people-to-people programs that provide increased interaction with the people of Cuba. 

“I have no doubt that the dynamism of American society will make a positive contribution to empowering the Cuban people and provide them with the information they need to build the future of their country.

“While the President’s policy has made important changes to U.S. travel regulations, there are some things that only the Congress can do.  For that reason, I am a co-sponsor to Senator Flake’s Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act.  I think we must do everything we can to promote robust ties between the citizens of the United States and Cuba. And, I hope we will have an opportunity to discuss this issue today.

“Third, the Administration’s new Cuba policy will provide the U.S., and especially our diplomats, with new tools to engage directly with the Cuban government to have principled and frank discussions about the issues we disagree about and how we might work together better on issues of common interest. 

“Every day, our diplomats around the world demonstrate their ability to engage foreign governments and advance U.S. national interests.  It is not unreasonable to think that we will have a better chance to address the outstanding claims held by U.S. citizens for property confiscated by the Cuban government or to secure the return of American fugitives to face justice in the U.S. if we actually engage in direct dialogue with the Cuban government and articulate our demands.

“And, when it comes to issues of confronting the illicit counternarcotics trade or addressing migration issues, it is in the national interest of both the United States and Cuba to have channels of communication between our two governments.  Diplomacy will make this more possible.

“Now, as I stated previously, the President’s Cuba policy has put the U.S. on the right path.  But, we must remain clear-eyed about several issues and we must continue to speak out about them.

“We cannot ignore the Cuban’s government record on human rights or human trafficking.  Every month, there are too many cases where the Cuban government jails political activists for what they believe in and what they say in public.  Human rights and freedom of expression must be central to all of our engagement with the Cuban government.  I know that Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowksi led a human rights dialogue with the Cuban government earlier this year.  While Mr. Malinowski isn’t here, I hope we can hear about this development.

“Additionally, as U.S. entrepreneurs and companies pursue initiatives in Cuba, it is my expectation that they will use these opportunities to call for greater respect for basic labor rights on the island.  Despite the outdated mechanism that gives the Cuban government authority to provide employees to foreign businesses, we must all insist that basic rights are respected, that Cuban citizens be provided the compensation they deserve, and that all Cubans have access to opportunities.  This is particularly relevant for the country’s Afro-Cuban population, who too often are denied employment opportunities that others are granted.

“With that said, I want to welcome our witnesses today. Counselor Shannon and Assistant Secretary Jacobson are two of our preeminent experts on the Western Hemisphere and I look forward to your testimony.

“Assistant Secretary Jacobson, I understand you will be meeting with the Cuban government tomorrow here in Washington for a fourth round of talks on re-establishing direct diplomatic relations between our two countries.  I hope you will be able to provide us with an update on these talks and what our next steps are.”