On November 26, the New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez held a press conference at the Union of Ex-Political Prisoners of Cuba, a human rights group based in Union City. Known colloquially as “Havana on the Hudson,” Union City is home to a large population of Cuban exiles and immigrants who settled there in the 1960s and 1970s, many of them perhaps more inclined to celebrate than mourn the passing of long-time dictator Fidel Castro the day before.
But the American-born Menendez, whose family moved to the United States in the 1950s, was in no mood to celebrate. “Too many families have been torn apart. Too many killed and imprisoned. Too many tortured, too many hungry, a nation destroyed and millions enslaved,” the senator said, surrounded by members of the group. “[A] Castro”—Fidel’s brother, Raul—“still rules 11 million Cubans with an iron fist. Time has made Americans numb to those harsh realities. But for the people of Cuba, they are the nightmare they live every day.”
For Menendez, Fidel’s death was a reminder of how much America has forgotten. (The walls of the room where he spoke were covered with pictures of those who’d been beaten, tortured, or killed under the Castro regime, reminders of “what Fidel Castro’s legacy is truly all about,” Menendez said.) In his view, grand gestures like the Obama administration’s December 2014 opening to Cuba offered Raul Castro far too much—gradual re-integration into the global economy and a softening of the 54-year trade embargo—in exchange for far too little in the way of political liberalization.
Obama has made the argument against the ongoing embargo, which he says did little to change the behavior of the Castro regime, or compel economic or political liberalization. “Instead of supporting democracy and opportunity for the Cuban people, our efforts to isolate Cuba despite good intentions increasingly had the opposite effect—cementing the status quo and isolating the United States from our neighbors in this hemisphere,” he said in July 2015.
But in an interview on Thursday, the senator defended the embargo as a measure that had created a sense of “economic necessity” for the Castro regime, and argued that it had in fact forced Cuba into substantive changes such as reducing the size of its military. The regime’s capacity to support anti-colonial revolutions in Latin America, the Congo, Angola, and elsewhere, was reduced as well. And the U.S. dollar, which was illegal in Cuba until 1993, is now openly traded. All of this, Menendez said, was made possible by the economic hardship the embargo created for the regime despite never being fully enforced thanks to various loopholes available to international subsidiaries of U.S. companies. “I think we would all say these are good things for the Cuban people to some extent, and certainly for the people of the hemisphere in terms of greater stability,” Menendez said.
Obama’s diplomatic rapprochement with Cuba, premised on what he called the failure of the previous policy, in Menendez’s view failed to take into account changes in the international environment that could have made that policy work better. Cuba’s longtime regime patron Venezuela, which has provided oil in exchange for Cuban doctors, along with security and trade assistance to Havana, has experienced its own economic and political crisis in recent years, which could have further degraded the Castro regime’s position, making it more susceptible to U.S. pressure for real change, Menendez argued. He also pointed out that the number of Cubans seeking to come to the United States has continued to grow since Obama’s opening. “[If] things were so great two years after this new opening, people would be staying, not coming,” he said.
“I have talked to those who are presently residing in Cuba and who struggle every day within the belly of the beast to try to create change in their country. ... The Ladies in White have told me about the difficulties and the challenges, the beatings and the arrests and the torture, and have told me that, in the last two years, things have only gotten worse. Because the regime’s message is, ‘We only care about doing business. We don’t care about human rights and democracy because we hardly talk about it anymore.’ [Cubans] feel, in that [sense], abandoned.”
Critics of America’s long-standing policy of isolationism towards Cuba often point out that the country has, in fact, thrived in certain key respects under the Castros, including healthcare and literacy.
As Menendez has suggested in the past, the better approach in Cuba would’ve resembled something closer to Obama’s strategy with Burma. There, in Menendez’s words, the president said, “‘You want to have a relationship with [the United States], then you have to release political prisoners. … You have to hold legislative elections. You have to permit the UN special rapporteur for human rights to come in, and then you can have a relationship with us.’ And guess what? All those things happened.” Burma’s democratic reforms are still fragile, however, and the country could easily backslide.
Now, with the death of Fidel Castro, “the intellectual leader of first a revolution and then a dictatorship,” comes “a symbolic end from the leader of the movement that enslaved the Cuban people,” Menendez said. This, in turn, opens up an opportunity for Washington to steer Cuba away from a state-controlled economy that seems poised to enrich members of the Castro family. “When we do business, allow business to take place and engage with [Cuba], we strengthen the regime that oppresses its people, not the people themselves.” (Menendez is doesn’t see much potential for change under Raul. “Raul Castro has more blood on his hands than Fidel did,” he said at his press conference.)
To help the Cuban people, Menendez pointed to things like Title II of the LIBERTAD Act of 1995, which he helped write, that were designed to engage Cuban civil society. “We used to have programs of parliamentarians from former communist blocks or dictatorships who transitioned to democracy to talk about how they did it, and go visit with human-rights and democracy leaders inside of Cuba. We used to … help Cuban democracy and human rights movements … communicate with each other on the island, which in and of itself is an incredible challenge for them. We could use our surrogate transmissions into Cuba through radio and television Marti to allow the voice of the Cuban people to be the voice that gets transmitted back, not just our broadcasting.”
Yet it’s unclear how much political and economic reform in Cuba actually matters for America’s interests. After all, Cuba hasn’t posed a serious threat to the United States since 1962, and its influence in the Western hemisphere has, as Menendez pointed out, been waning for decades.
Menendez argued that democracies are, largely, less likely to go to war with other democracies, and more encouraging of open markets. “They create greater stability. And so that would be true for Cuba as well. It is in the national interest and security of the United States to have a country in the Western hemisphere that is democratic, creating greater opportunities for its people. Because it’s the command and control economy of the Castro regime that really creates the desperateness of the Cuban people.”