12.17.15

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On The One Year Anniversary of the Release of Alan Gross

Mr. LEAHY.  Mr. President, today marks the one-year anniversary of the release of Alan Gross from a Cuban prison where he spent five years.  During that time he lost more than 100 pounds, lost five teeth, his mother died, his mother-in-law died, a brother-in-law died, and he missed his daughter’s wedding. 

I worked for three years to help obtain Alan Gross’ release and the return of the remaining members of the so-called Cuban Five who had served more than 15 years in U.S. prisons. 

Scott Gilbert, Alan Gross’ lawyer, did an outstanding job, traveling countless times to Cuba and skillfully advocating on Alan’s behalf with Cuban and U.S. officials.

My larger purpose, like that of my good friend from Arizona, Senator Flake, who has been a real partner in this, was to finally put the Cold War behind us and to start looking forward to a new era. 

Like Senator Flake and many others, I was convinced that such a step would be widely embraced by the U.S. business community, by religious groups, by academia, by the scientific community, the media, and Americans across the political spectrum. 

I also knew that it would be welcomed around the world, including in countries whose people believe in democracy and human rights as strongly as we do.

Alan Gross’ release ushered in a new day in U.S.-Cuba relations, poignantly demonstrated on August 14th by the raising of our flag at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.  It was a deeply moving experience to be there on that swelteringly hot day, to hear both national anthems played, and especially to hear the cheers of the Cubans who were inside and outside of the Embassy grounds.

After 54 years of a failed, punitive policy that had achieved none of its objectives, President Obama and President Raul Castro wisely decided it was time to chart a new path. 

The reaction of the people of the United States and Cuba has been overwhelmingly positive.  Even some of Cuba’s most vocal critics of the Castro Government have welcomed the new opening. 

Alan Gross, who had every reason to be a bitter defender of sanctions, has instead strongly supported the new policy of engagement.  He has never expressed anything but warmth and admiration for the Cuban people.

Contrast that with the small handful of Members of Congress who continue to defend a discredited policy of isolation that has been repudiated by large majorities of their own constituents, denounced by every other government in this hemisphere, and that even they acknowledge has not succeeded. 

Yet their answer is to keep it in place, even opposing efforts by the State Department to improve security and staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Havana to which the Cuban Government has agreed. 

I am not so naïve to think that reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba would result in the rapid transformation of Cuba into a democracy.  Cuba’s leaders are steadfast believers in a repressive political system that has enabled them to hold onto power unchallenged for more than half a century. 

Their economic policies have been a disaster, resulting in daily hardships for the Cuban people.  While the Cuban Government blames its economic problems on the U.S. embargo, no one seriously believes that, although it is undeniable that the embargo has exacerbated those hardships. 

It is also undeniable that support for the embargo in the United States, from the business community to the human rights community, has evaporated. 

I wonder how many Members of Congress know that in the past five years the Government of Cuba, while blaming us for the embargo, has imported more than $1 billion in U.S. agricultural and medical products.  American exports mean American jobs.  The embargo punishes American workers.

Why are we also punishing half a million Cuban entrepreneurs who already work in the private sector and are no longer dependent on the government?  Why not support the private sector in Cuba as we do everywhere else in the world?

Why not open the United States to an emerging Cuban market? 

It is past time to replace vindictiveness and personal or family grievances with what is best for the American people.

I condemn the Cuban Government’s arrests and imprisonment – after trials that are devoid of due process – of individuals who have done nothing more than peacefully protest against the government’s repressive policies.  At least two of them are among the 53 who were released as part of the agreement a year ago.

Eleven others who were released at an earlier time are still being denied their right to travel freely.

But Cuba’s leaders cannot stop the tide of history any more than any of us can.  The majority of Cubans were not even born at the time of the 1959 revolution, and they have very different priorities and aspirations from those who overthrew Batista’s corrupt, abusive regime.  Cuba is already changing in ways that will mean more freedom, more engagement with the world, and more economic opportunities.

During the past twelve months, the Obama Administration has taken historic steps to implement the new policy.  After so many decades when U.S. – Cuban relations were frozen in time, the progress has been breathtaking. 

Talks are underway between both governments on a wide range of issues, from resuming direct mail and air service, to law enforcement cooperation and property claims. 

Senator Flake and I have introduced legislation, cosponsored by 45 other Democrats and Republicans, to end restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba – restrictions that do not exist for travel to any other country, including Iran and North Korea.  

If our bill were voted on I am confident it would pass easily.   

This year, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed, with bipartisan majorities, a similar travel amendment by Senator Moran and myself and two other amendments to facilitate U.S. agricultural exports and shipping to and from Cuba. 

In contrast, the House of Representatives adopted half a dozen provisions offered by a single Member that would turn back the clock. 

I have no doubt that the path begun by President Obama and President Raul Castro is the right one for the people of both countries and that the dwindling few who continue to try to stand in its way will fail. 

History is not on their side, and rather than continue to cling to a policy that was misguided from its inception and did nothing to help the Cuban people, they should respect the will of their constituents and the Cubans on whose behalf they erroneously claim to speak.

Mr. President, only twelve months have passed since Alan Gross came home, but more has been accomplished in those twelve months for the betterment of the people of Cuba and the United States, and for our reputation and influence in this hemisphere, than in the past half century. 

I ask unanimous consent that a chronology of those accomplishments prepared by the coalition “Engage Cuba” be printed in the Record at the end of my remarks.

I hope that before another year passes the Congress will have finally recognized that it, too, has a responsibility to respect the will of the people, to end the embargo, to stop interfering with the right of Americans to travel, and that exposing the Cuban people to our ideas, our principles, and our products is the best policy for the future.

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