06.26.17

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On President Trump's Cuba Policy

Mr. President, on June 16th, in a campaign style speech glorifying the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, President Trump spoke of freedom and democracy for the Cuban people. 

Those are goals we all share, not only for the people of Cuba but for people everywhere.  But the hypocrisy of the President’s remarks in Miami, when he announced his decision to roll back engagement between the United States and Cuba, was glaring, if not surprising.

This is a president who has praised, feted, and offered aid and weapons to some of the world’s most brutal despots. 

A president who, when in Saudi Arabia, never uttered the words “freedom”, “democracy”, or “women’s rights”.  In fact, he said that he did not believe in lecturing other governments about such things.  Freedom House ranks Saudi Arabia as less free than Cuba.

This is a president who welcomed at the White House President Erdogan, who has imprisoned tens of thousands of teachers, journalists, and civil servants as he dismantles the institutions of secular democracy in Turkey. 

A president who praised Philippine President Duterte, who brags of committing murder, and who defends a policy of summarily executing, without any legal process, thousands of suspected petty drug users. 

A president who says he admires President Putin, and acts like a soulmate to Egypt’s President el Sisi, both of whom have shown no reluctance to order the imprisonment and, in Russia even the assassination, of critics of their autocratic rule. 

Despite all that, President Trump has decided to make a point of tiny Cuba, whose government, for all its faults, doesn’t hold a candle to these other autocracies.  And as if the hypocrisy of it were not enough, it gets a whole lot worse.  Because in doing so, President Trump has trampled on the rights of Americans.

I wonder how many, if any, Members of Congress have read the details of the President’s announcement in Miami, other than the couple of Cuban American Members of Congress – neither of whom has ever set foot in Cuba – who publicly took credit for writing the new White House policy. 

That in itself speaks volumes about the Administration’s so-called policy review, which turns out to have been largely a sham.  Apparently, every federal agency recommended continuing on the path of engagement begun by President Obama, as did the U.S. business community and the rapidly growing number of private Cuban entrepreneurs who are benefitting from U.S. engagement. 

It is especially ironic that those hardworking Cubans, and private American citizens, are the ones who will be hurt by this change in policy.    

Instead, the President decided to toss a political favor to a tiny minority of the President’s supporters in Miami.

The President’s party has long claimed to be a party devoted to individual freedom.  Let me give you a few examples of what his policy means for the freedom of individual Americans.

First, remember that Americans can travel freely to any of the other countries I have mentioned, despite the repressive policies of their governments – Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Turkey and Egypt, as well as Iran, Vietnam, and China.  Americans can go to any of these countries without restriction. 

Of course Americans can travel freely to Russia, Cuba’s former patron, which today is investing heavily in Cuba’s transport sector and wants a military base there.  And Americans can travel freely to Venezuela, Cuba’s source of cheap oil.

In fact, Americans can travel freely to any country they want, no matter how undemocratic and repressive the government, and President Trump apparently could care less.

But not to Cuba, a country whose people Americans have far more in common with than those of any of the other countries I named.

No.  President Trump says you can only go there under conditions the White House, and bureaucrats in the Treasury Department who have also never been to Cuba, permit.

Rather than make your own decision about where to take your family for vacation, or to experience a foreign culture, the White House is going to make that decision for you.

You must be part of an organized group, and the purpose of your trip must fit within one of twelve licensing categories determined by bureaucrats at the Treasury Department. 

You must have a designated chaperone to verify that, heaven forbid, you do not stray from the program submitted to, and approved – you hope – by, the Treasury Department, whose employees you have never met.  And if your application is interminably delayed or denied – for whatever reason – you are out of luck.  There is no appeal.

This is how the White House says that Cuba will become a democracy.  By curtailing the freedom of Americans to travel and spend their own money there.

By not trusting the American people to make their own decisions. 

By behaving the way we would expect of a Communist dictatorship, not of the world’s oldest democracy where the government’s job is to protect individual freedom, not trample on it.

How well did restricting travel by Americans to Cuba work from 1961 until 2014, when President Obama relaxed those Cold War restrictions, decades after the Russians had abandoned the island and Cuba no longer posed any threat to us? 

It failed miserably, at the same time that it treated the Cuban and American people as pawns in a political game. 

Throughout those many years, the Castro Government blamed the U.S. for its own failings and repressive policies, and for many years the Cuban people believed it.  But with the possible exception of the Pope, I don’t think any foreigner has been received as warmly, or engendered as much hope for the future, as President Obama when he and First Lady Michelle Obama visited Havana.

President Trump claims President Obama got a “bad deal” when our flag went up at the U.S. Embassy in Havana less than two years ago.  But President Trump has never said what the deal he believes he could obtain would look like. 

His so-called “deal” can be described in one word:  capitulation, which has not worked for half a century.

The White House decries the decrepit Cuban military’s role in the economy, as if it poses a threat to us, or is somehow an aberration.  They should look at the role of Egypt’s military, and Russia’s, and Indonesia’s, and Pakistan’s that have their hands in all kinds of business and real estate ventures. 

They point out that the number of people arrested in Cuba has increased.  I have condemned the arrests of peaceful protesters. These arrests are wrong, as they are in the countries whose repressive governments the President has praised, some of which are close allies of the United States. 

Like Americans, the Cuban people know that fundamental change will not happen quickly, and that the revolutionaries who overthrew one dictator only to replace him with another will hold onto power while they can. 

But they also know their time is ending, that Cuba is changing, and that the American people can support them best by engaging with them.

Secretary of State Tillerson says the Administration is “motivated by the conviction that the more we engage with other nations on issues of security and prosperity, the more we will have opportunities to shape the human rights conditions in those nations.”  Apparently, he should have said “except not in Cuba." 

Mr. President, on May 25th, Senator Flake and I, along with 53 Democratic and Republican cosponsors, introduced the “Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act”.  It is, frankly, absurd that such legislation is even necessary to restore the American people’s freedom to travel that the federal government should never have taken away.

Fifty-five Senators of both parties are on record in support of doing away with the restrictions in law that even President Obama could not fix, and if there is a vote on our bill it would pass overwhelmingly.  I hope the Majority Leader will let us have that vote, so we can show the Cuban people what real democracy looks like when people are allowed to vote.

We support freedom not only for the people of Cuba, but for the American people.  Because we reject the idea that any government should deny its citizens the right to travel freely, least of all our own government.

Because we actually believe Secretary Tillerson’s rhetoric.  We believe that restoring the punitive policy of the past is little more than a misguided act of vengeance rooted in a half century-old family feud that will do nothing to bring freedom to Cuba. 

The Cuban people and the American people want closer relations.  Every poll shows that.  President Trump should have listened to them, rather than to a tiny minority who want to turn back the clock. 

Mr. President, if we want to help bring freedom to Cuba we should flood Cuba with American visitors and make it possible for American farmers and American companies to compete, as we would for any other country. 

And if we really care about freedom, our government should stop playing Big Brother with the lives of Americans.  It doesn’t work.  It has never worked.  And it is wrong.

Press Contact

David Carle: 202-224-3693