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SFRC Chairman Menendez Delivers Floor Speech on U.S. Policy Toward Cuba

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today took to the Senate Floor to deliver remarks on the trajectory of United States policy toward Cuba. The Senator outlined his recent consultations with President Biden and Secretary Blinken on how to continue supporting the island’s surging pro-democracy movement and the importance of securing respect for the universal rights and freedoms of the Cuban people.

“We are bearing witness to a historic moment in which Cubans from all walks of life are coming together to demand that same freedom. We are bearing witness to a deep discontent within the Cuban people with the status quo and life under one of the most repressive regimes ever known,” Senator Menendez said. “For more than sixty years, they have lived without liberty and justice. Without freedom of expression. Without human rights and the ability to determine their own future.”

“Let us not repeat the mistakes of the past. Let us not fall victim to tired myths. Let us embrace fact over fiction. Most importantly, let us hear the Cuban people’s cries for freedom,” Senator Menendez added. “It is our job to stand with them. To empower them. And, ensure that the international community helps them achieve their dreams and aspirations – porque sin libertad y sin democracia no hay ‘Patria y Vida.’ Pero con libertad, y con democracia, hay una patria y vida de mucha oportunidad.”


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


“Madam President, I rise today to urge leaders across the United States and governments around the world to stand in solidarity with the people of Cuba as they cry out for freedom—for libertad—and for an end to decades of dictatorship.


What is happening in Cuba today is nothing short of historic. Yes, we’ve seen protests take place in years past. But the demonstrations that began on July 11th stand apart. 


What began as one small pro-democracy protest in San Antonio de los Baños spread across the island in a matter of hours.


Cubans from all walks of life took to the streets in a courageous call for democratic change.


Among those clamoring for freedom were Afro-Cubans demanding an end to discrimination and injustice, young people dreaming of a brighter future in their country, artists and activists from the San Isidro Movement singing ‘Patria y Vida’ and ordinary citizens facing widespread food shortages, poor access to health care, and little to no protection from the ravages of COVID-19.


The people of Cuba are crying out for freedom and we must hear them.


El pueblo cubano está pidiendo lo justo – que es libertad – y debemos escuchar su clamor.


This is not about politics or ideology. The free world has a responsibility to stand with those who are not yet free. And the people of Cuba are anything but free.


Let us dispel with the myths about what life is under the Cuban regime.


For decades, the regime’s ruthless and repressive tactics have systematically silenced the Cuban people while party insiders and cronies enrich themselves at their expense.


Today, Cuba remains a one party Communist state where the basic principles of political pluralism and representative democracy are outlawed.


There are no free and fair elections in Cuba. Miguel Díaz Canel may have appeared on a ballot, but there were no other candidates. He was not chosen by the people, but hand-picked by the Castros as their successor. He has the same ideology. He says the same things. He talks of ‘la continuación’ – the continuation. Continuation of oppression.


There is no freedom of the press in Cuba. Independent journalists are routinely targeted with violence, harassment, imprisonment and raids on their homes and offices.


There is no internet freedom in Cuba. The regime monitors online traffic, blocks sites, and charges so much money for data that most Cubans cannot afford access.


When the regime gets scared about what the Cuban people are saying and doing, they shut down the whole internet. The only reason a government shuts down the internet is because they fear their own people. But this has consequences.


I recently had a Catholic priest visiting here in Washington from Cuba. He told me an incredibly powerful story. He said this young man came to see him in church and said: ‘I would fight. I would give my life for the cause of freedom if only someone would know that I died. If only someone would know that I died.’


There is no freedom of expression in Cuba. Hundreds of activists, artists, and political dissidents are taken prisoner every year, without due process. Others are beaten in the streets or terminated from their jobs for daring to express a contrary opinion.


Cubans can even be imprisoned for the Orwellian offense of ‘pre-criminal dangerousness.’ You heard me right. ‘Pre-criminal dangerousness.’


Let that sink in. The political police can arrest you if they decide that you may commit a political crime in the future.


Fortunately, the Cuban regime’s brutality has failed to extinguish the flame of liberty, which is alive in the hearts of Cuban people.


Their courageous call for freedom is truly awe-inspiring.


And yet the regime responded to these protests as all authoritarian governments do—with repression, with censorship, with violence.


The regime’s internet outages tried to stop the Cuban people from using social media to open the eyes of world to the repression and injustice they live with each and every day.


Yet it was too late. The truth went viral.


Images of everyday Cubans chanting ‘abajo la dictadura’ or ‘down with the dictatorship’ and singing ‘Patria y Vida’ or ‘Homeland and Life’ spread around the world.


And, so did countless videos of the regime’s violent crackdown.


Make no mistake, the incitement of violence came from the very top itself.


It was Miguel Díaz Canel – ostensibly the President of Cuba – who encouraged supporters to attack peaceful protestors, declaring in a televised address, ‘the order to fight has been given – into the streets’ and pledged his supporters’ lives: ‘Over our dead bodies. We are prepared to do anything.’


What leader of a country invokes the people of the country to turn against their brothers and sisters in violence? Who does that? Díaz Canel did that.


The regime has confirmed just one death. Yet independent reports suggest additional lives were lost as well as numerous cases of violence and even torture. I have seen many of the videos. We can't show videos here on the Senate Floor, but I tell you if we could, it would be incredibly compelling and incredibly graphic and incredibly violent.


International human rights groups believe more than 500 people have likely been detained, most facing arbitrary charges.


Likewise – don’t take my word for it – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed her concern about, and I quote, ‘the excessive force against demonstrators in Cuba and the arrest of a large number of people, including journalists. It is particularly worrying that these include individuals allegedly held incommunicado and people whose whereabouts are unknown.’


In fact, we have seen many videos and many stories of families trying to find out: where are their loved ones?


Already the regime is preparing summary trials for protesters that deny them access to legal representation, subject them to sham sentences, and make a mockery of due process.


Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, a leader of the San Isidro Movement of artists known globally for their efforts to promote freedom of expression, has been jailed and charged with ‘resistance’ and ‘public disorder.’ For what? For merely announcing on social media that he intended to join the peaceful protests. This artistic leader, this individual as one of the leaders of the San Isidro movement jailed. For what? For nothing.


Jose Daniel Ferrer, head of the Patriotic Union of Cuba or UNPACU, is behind bars. He is a renowned civil society leader who previously spent eight years in prison for organizing an entirely legal electoral referendum under the existing Cuban Constitution and was declared a ‘prisoner of conscience’ by Amnesty International.


The regime has also unjustly detained multiple journalists for courageously reporting on the events of July 11th, including Camila Acosta, Luz Escobar, and Henry Constantin.


Regime security forces also violently assaulted Ramon Espinosa, a photographer for the Associated Press.


Arrests have surged in recent days, but politically motivated arrests have taken place throughout 2021. Rapper and Afro-Cuban artist Maykel Osorbo has been in prison since May.


He is one of the artists featured in the protest anthem ‘Patria y Vida.’ Yes, in Cuba, you can be arrested for singing.


Today’s protest movement builds on decades of efforts by Cuban patriots to advance the cause of freedom.


Durante décadas de opresión Castrista, el pueblo cubano nunca ha parado de buscar su libertad. A pesar de la poca atención que algunos héroes han recibido, ellos han hecho posible este momento en la historia de Cuba.


From the Patriotic Union of Cuba’s efforts to unite activists in support of democracy – to Berta Soler and the intrepid leaders of the Ladies in White. These are the spouses, daughters, and mothers of political prisoners who repeatedly faced violence for attending church services and walking peacefully in white through Havana’s streets with a gladiola in their hands. Beaten for walking peacefully along the streets of Havana dressed in white with a gladiola in their hands. I was privileged to have Berta here at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


To the Christian Liberation Movement’s work exploiting tools afforded by the regime’s own constitution to advance democratic change.


This month marks nine years since the Movement’s leader, Oswaldo Payá, died in a suspicious car crash that has never been fully investigated due to the regime’s obstruction.


I believe he was assassinated.


Decade after decade, Cuban patriots have dedicated their lives and given their lives to the cause of democracy and freedom. They have struggled to rebuild communities and preserve values relentlessly attacked by Cuba’s Communist leaders.


They have worked tirelessly to alleviate the hardships that forced hundreds of thousands of Cuban families to abandon their homeland in search of opportunities abroad.


The suffering that the Cuban regime inflicts on its own people extends beyond its borders.


For over two decades, Cuba has provided military and intelligence assistance to Venezuela’s dictatorship.


It has exported its repressive tactics from Havana to Caracas.


It has shared its failed economic model with Venezuela’s kleptocrats.


And it should be no surprise that Venezuela is now a failed state with a devastating humanitarian crisis.


Cuba also provides safe haven to members of Colombia’s ELN guerilla group, designated by the United States as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The regime continues to ignore extradition requests from the Colombian government.


In addition, Cuba has also harbored – and still harbors – American fugitives evading the U.S. justice system. They include Joanne Chesimard, who remains on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for her role in the murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster, and William ‘Guillermo’ Morales, a terrorist who took part in several bombings in the United States, including Fraunces Tavern in Manhattan in 1975.


As it exports criminality and repression across the Americas, the Cuban regime is a cancer that spreads instability across our hemisphere.


Against this backdrop, the people of Cuba cry out for freedom. I urge our partners in the international community: listen to their voices, hear their cries of desperation.


Es hora de que la comunidad internacional escuche el llamado del pueblo Cubano y actúe. No solamente que lo escuche pero que actúe. No solamente que diga que está en solidaridad pero que actúe.


They want freedom from a system that denies them basic human rights and control over their own destiny.


They want freedom from an economic model that places the interests of corrupt party and military oligarchs above those of the people.


But there is no freedom today in Cuba. There is no economic opportunity. There is no justice.


The regime has turned a blind eye to reports documenting a disturbing rise in femicide and violence against women.


It continues to treat Afro-Cubans as second-class citizens unworthy of political representation and opportunity, even while they are the leaders of the freedom movement inside of Cuba.


And it continues to deploy Cuban doctors to foreign countries against their will and under conditions that meet the definition of human trafficking.


The regime sends Cuban doctors abroad, takes away their passports, monitors their activities, threatens retribution against their families, all the while garnishing 75 percent of the wages that the country is paying for that doctor. These medical missions aren’t humanitarian aid – they’re forced labor.


The regime continues to engage in gross economic mismanagement. Money that could be spent caring for the sick or vaccinating people against COVID-19 instead goes to new hotels and tourist destinations.


And despite the growing number of international companies there, Cuban workers cannot be hired directly by those companies.


So you own a hotel like the Spaniards do in Cuba. You don't hire the worker directly. You go to the state employment agency.


They send you the worker, you pay the state employment agency, which means the regime, in dollars, and they pay the worker a fraction of what the regime is getting paid. They have no rights. If you have a problem with that employee, send them back to us, we will send you someone else. Fire them at will. They have no rights. State-owned employment agencies garnish their wages and ironically deny them the right to organize outside the Communist Party’s one controlled union.


As the Cuban people push for a new dawn in their country, the vibrant Cuban American community here has never wavered in their support for our brothers and sisters on the island.


They’ve worked tirelessly to support family members in Cuba and ensure their cries for help are heard around the world.


In rallies and demonstrations in my home state of New Jersey, in Florida, and here in Washington, Cuban Americans are standing with loved ones on the island and diaspora living around the world and calling for an end to a system that has robbed generations of Cuban families of their dignity.


Since July 11, President Biden and Secretary Blinken have repeatedly spoken in support of the Cuban people, and made clear the United States stands with them in their call for freedom.


More importantly, the Administration is backing up its words with action.


Last week, President Biden invoked the Global Magnitsky Act. That is a law that we use, passed by the Congress of the United States, to sanction human rights violators around the globe. The President invoked the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction Cuban Defense Minister General Lopez Miera and the Black Berets SWAT unit for their violent and repressive actions against peaceful protesters.


And Secretary Blinken has made clear the Administration will continue holding human rights abusers accountable.


I urge the Administration to consider additional Global Magnitsky designations and also to revoke the existing visas of senior officials. Such steps are greatly needed.


With the Díaz Canel regime wielding internet connectivity as a political weapon against its citizens, the Administration is also pursuing ways to help Cubans gain unrestricted access to the internet.


They need unfettered access to information. They need to be able to communicate with each other. They need to be able to tell each other what is happening in their country. They need to be able to organize peacefully to create change in their country. We need to find a way to get the people of Cuba internet connectivity.  


The United States also must continue working with international partners in support of democracy and human rights in Cuba.


Last week, I was proud to lead a joint statement – the first time ever – in support of the Cuban people with my counterparts who chair Foreign Affairs Committees in the United Kingdom, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.


And this week, the Foreign Ministers of 20 nations joined Secretary Blinken to ‘condemn the mass arrests and detentions of protestors in Cuba and call on the government to respect the universal rights and freedoms of the Cuban people.’


Many of these countries have never ever expressed themselves in solidarity with the Cuban people. I am proud to see Secretary Blinken and the Administration make that happen.


I applaud those governments that joined Secretary Blinken. But I also note the absence of those including Canada, Spain, and the European Union.


Does Spain care more about Spanish hotel investments than it does about the human rights of the Cuban people?


Les importan más los negocios de los españoles en la isla de Cuba que la libertad y la democracia de un pueblo oprimido? Les importan mas estas inversiones?


Does Canada place more priority on mining investments than it does on fundamental freedoms?


I would hope not. These universal principles should unite all of us.


The Administration is also convening a working group to study options for the restoration of some remittances.


For too long, the Cuban military’s economic conglomerate has managed the remittances that Cuban Americans send their families on the island, using fees and currency conversion to enrich itself.


The United States would never allow the Spanish, Mexican, or Argentine military to control the flow of remittances to their countries. It is time that we insist Cuban Americans be able to freely and directly support their loved ones.


Es justo que el trabajo duro de las familias Cubanoamericanas pueda proveer recursos a sus familias, en vez de que sea usado para enriquecer a la élite del Partido Comunista de Cuba.


The steps taken thus far by the Biden administration are important. But we must do more.


Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved my resolution, along with colleagues on both the Republican and Democratic sides, expressing our solidarity with the Cuban people and condemning the regime’s abuses.


This bipartisan, bicameral initiative deserves the support of the full Senate and I hope we will pass it on the Floor this week.


It is also time for the Biden administration to issue a new executive order to provide direction for U.S. policy towards Cuba.


The order should hone our accountability measures for persons involved in human rights abuses and those who materially support them. It should solidify our strategies on internet access and support for the Cuban people.


Debemos continuar ejerciendo presión sobre quienes violan derechos humanos y elevar nuestro apoyo al pueblo cubano.


The United States must also find new ways to work with trusted, impartial international partners, including international organizations, to provide vaccines and other aid directly to the Cuban people.


The Cuban regime has grossly mismanaged its pandemic response. It has refused to participate in COVAX and continues to promote its own vaccine, which is either ineffective or unavailable, because people in Cuba are dying. As a result, everyday Cubans continue to suffer.


The United States must lead a serious effort to push for the demilitarization of the Cuban economy. The military-owned umbrella company GAESA reigns supreme over the Cuban economy.


It is run by who? By Raul Castro’s son-in-law, Luis Alberto Lopez Callejas, fueling the rise of a new generation of regime oligarchs.


The Cuban people will never achieve economic prosperity while regime military companies control the economy.


And Congress should review options to increase funding for U.S. democracy programs as well as internet freedom initiatives. 


After years of efforts by the Trump administration to slash funding for programs that we continuously had to fight to bring back that provide lifelines to Cuban activists and civil society, I am very pleased to see that the Biden administration has requested $20 million for these programs and made clear that America will continue standing with those on the frontlines of the Cuba pro-democracy movement.


It is time for the U.S. to launch a campaign in support of labor rights in Cuba. There is no acceptable explanation for why Cuban men and women are unable to be directly hired and directly paid by international companies and organizations that are present in Cuba.


If we are serious about empowering the Cuban people, they must have a direct say in their livelihoods.


The Biden administration should pursue the success of past campaigns, such as the Sullivan Principles in South Africa, to lead efforts that require businesses to engage directly with the Cuban people and their employment.


The Biden administration should also maintain the State Department’s Cuba Restricted List, which can help businesses and organizations directly engage with the Cuban people instead of regime conglomerates.


Additionally, the United States and our allies must send a message to members of the Cuban military. The Cuban military’s slogan is that it draws its power from the people. Well, the people are protesting. In reality you should not use your power against the people.


El ejército cubano tiene que entender de que si el poder del ejército cubano es porque viene del pueblo. El pueblo está protestando. El pueblo quiere libertad. No usan tus armas en contra de tus hermanos y hermanas si quieren tener un futuro en Cuba.


Additionally, let's be clear. When we send that message to the Cuban military not to turn its arms against its brothers and sisters, the world is watching what is happening in Cuba.


There is a future in a democratic Cuba under civilian control for members of the military who refuse to repress their fellow citizens.


But if you're involved in human rights abuses and have blood on your hands, you will be held accountable.


It's also worth noting to Cuba's military leaders that their future with this regime is anything but certain. In the last ten days, five Cuban generals have died under highly suspicious conditions that the regime seems intent on covering up. All of a sudden, five Cuban generals in ten days have died. I don't know at this time that I'd want to be a general in Cuba.


To those who want to blame Cuba's misery on the U.S. Embargo, I would say that it is the Cuban regime that needs to lift its embargo on its own population. It is the regime's own restrictive policies that have left the average Cuban destitute while oligarchs run state-run stores that are brimming with dollar denominated goods out of reach of the general population.


El verdadero embargo es el del régimen comunista en contra del pueblo que no puede acceder a comida, medicinas, o artículos de primera necesidad sin el consentimiento.


The steps to end the embargo are laid out clearly in Title II of the LIBERTAD Act, which is a law of the United States, which I wrote. Those steps include releasing political prisoners, legalizing political activity, and holding democratic elections.


If the regime ends its iron-fisted rule over the Cuban people, Title II of LIBERTAD lays out what the United States stands ready to do. To pursue a different relationship with the people and government of Cuba.


The United States would work directly with a democratic government to take steps to remove the embargo, to engage in direct trade with Cuba, to support its return and membership to international financial organizations, and so much more.


It is all there in U.S. law. This is not a promise of something that could happen. It’s a promise of what would happen if there is a change in Cuba. It is time for the Cuban regime to take the first steps and accept the demands of the Cuban people.


Let me close, Madam President, on a personal note. I stand here on the floor of the United States Senate as the son of Cuban refugees who came to this country in search of freedom and opportunity.


Today, we are bearing witness to something in Cuba that my parents never got to see – el día con el que ellos soñaron sueñan millones de Cubanos alrededor del mundo, el día en el que Cuba será libre.


We are bearing witness to a historic moment in which Cubans from all walks of life are coming together to demand that same freedom.


We are bearing witness to a deep discontent within the Cuban people with the status quo and life under one of the most repressive regimes ever known. 

For more than sixty years, they have lived without liberty and justice. Without freedom of expression. Without human rights and the ability to determine their own future.


No se equivocan. Cuando salió el pueblo al protestar, no protestaron diciendo ‘dame comida,’ ‘dame vacunas,’ ‘dame trabajo.’ No.


Una palabra, y una palabra sola. Libertad, libertad, libertad. Freedom. Because with freedom, everything else comes.


Let us not repeat the mistakes of the past. Let us not fall victim to tired myths. Let us embrace fact over fiction. Most importantly, let us hear the Cuban people’s cries for freedom.


It is our job to stand with them. To empower them. And, ensure that the international community helps them achieve their dreams and aspirations – porque sin libertad y sin democracia no hay ‘Patria y Vida.’ Pero con libertad, y con democracia, hay una patria y vida de mucha oportunidad.”