10.24.19

Statement On The United States and Cuba Today

Mr. LEAHY.   Mr. President, the Travel Section of the New York Times on Sunday, October 6, 2019, included a lengthy article about the extraordinary music of Cuba, and the rich culture that has developed over many generations around the creation and performance of music in that country.  The article is too long to insert into the Record, but I encourage all Senators to read it as it describes in colorful detail the unique creativity, ingenuity, and complexity of Cuban music that derives from the infinite variety of sounds, instruments, artistry, and talents of Cuban musicians drawing on their African, Haitian, and European heritage. 

I mention this because it is illustrative of the many aspects of Cuban society today that Americans should be able to experience for themselves.  The Cuban people, who endure many hardships, are as resilient, ingenious, and hard working as any people I have met.  Despite an economy broken by mismanagement that discourages private initiative, a one-party political system that punishes dissent, racial and gender inequality, and only dreams for a better future, they know how to enjoy life’s pleasures and to make strangers feel welcome. 

Unfortunately, rather than encouraging Americans to travel to Cuba to experience Cuban society and build relations with the Cuban people, as we do with people living under other autocratic governments, President Trump has slammed the door.  Egged on by a handful of Cuban-American hardliners in the White House, the State Department, and Congress – few if any of whom have ever set foot in Cuba – the President has adopted a bankrupt approach toward that country that is steeped in hypocrisy. 

These are the same people who for years have unreservedly supported spending hundreds of millions of dollars on TV and Radio Marti, despite abundant evidence that they were little more than anti-Cuba propaganda broadcasts masquerading as objective journalism.  Finally, thanks to a recent investigation, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting has new leadership and reforms are underway.  Those reforms should include relocating the Office to Washington, DC where it would be less vulnerable to the political interference and ideological influence that has plagued it in the past.   

Every few weeks or months, this White House devises a new way to ratchet up pressure on the Cuban Government, and, in doing so, cause greater hardship for the Cuban people on whose behalf the White House professes to act.  The latest was announced last week, when the Commerce Department said it is revoking licenses for aircraft leases to Cuban airlines and will deny future applications for aircraft leases.  It will also expand sanctions to cover more foreign goods containing as little as 10 percent U.S. content. 

 

Since this, like other sanctions against Cuba, will backfire, there is only one rational explanation:  the White House, and their enablers in Congress, care little about the impact of these punitive policies on the Cuban people.  They are motivated by personal and ideological animus. 

The White House has imposed onerous restrictions on travel by Americans who want, and have a right, to visit Cuba as they can to every other country except North Korea, and by Cubans who want to visit or resettle in the United States.  Just to apply for a U.S. visa, Cubans must now travel to a third country at a cost of hundreds of dollars that very few can afford.  Cuban entrepreneurs, whose fledgling small businesses depend on American customers, have seen their incomes plunge as visits to Cuba by Americans have fallen by 50 percent. 

For the first time that I can remember, Cubans with claims of being threatened and arrested for their political activism in Cuba and who have requested asylum in this country, have been locked up in U.S. jails and deported.

The White House has severely limited remittances, on which many Cuban families depend.  President Trump apparently believes it is his prerogative to dictate to Cuban-Americans how much – or how little – of their hard-earned income they can send to needy relatives. 

The State Department ordered the departure of U.S. Embassy personnel from Havana and Cuban Embassy personnel from Washington, which has brought diplomacy to a virtual halt.  Discussions on a wide range of topics, from public health to climate change that began under President Obama have all but ceased, and our top diplomat, Secretary of State Pompeo, has nothing but praise for a failed policy that is completely at odds with the mission of his Department.  Exhaustive investigations have not produced any evidence that illnesses suffered by U.S. Government personnel in Havana that triggered the ordered departure were caused by the Cuban Government, as some initially charged.  Yet, three years later our Embassy is barely functioning with a skeleton staff, and the State Department has done nothing to try to mitigate the adverse impact this is having on our relations with Cuba.

Under President Obama, negotiations began to seek a resolution of the thorny issue of expropriated property claims.  The Trump White House summarily abandoned that process, and has instead encouraged lawsuits against American companies that want to do business in Cuba, if doing so involves property confiscated during the Cuban revolution 60 years ago.  Airports, seaports, warehouses, hotels, homes, and restaurants, many of which were once owned by Cuban elites who profited off the spoils of the U.S. – supported Batista dictatorship, are now off limits.  This is a legitimate issue that needs to be addressed, but tying up U.S. courts for years and hurting American companies is not the way to do it.

The White House has insisted that each of these and other punitive actions is designed to bring democracy to Cuba and human rights to the Cuban people.  And I have little doubt that creative minds in the White House will conjure up additional sanctions in the coming months.  None of them will achieve those goals or anything positive for Cuba or its people.      

Anyone who knows Cuba, and who knows the Cuban Government, understands the fallacy of the White House’s approach.  I wish it were otherwise, but human rights have not improved since President Trump announced his punitive policy three years ago.  In fact the situation is worse, as the recent re-arrests of Jose Daniel Ferrer, Berta Soler, and other dissidents illustrates.  As access to the Internet in Cuba has increased, so has persecution of critics of the government.  With only a handful of staff at our Embassy in Havana there is no one to regularly interact with the Cuban dissident community or their families. 

Cuba is no closer to being a multi-party democracy than it was three years ago, nor is the Cuban Government any closer to withdrawing its support for Nicolas Maduro despite his corrupt, abusive, and disastrous reign in Venezuela.  So yes, we have profound disagreements.  But while the Administration continues to tighten the screws on Cuba, making the lives of the Cuban people even more difficult, President Trump sings the praises of other foreign dictators and pretends to be concerned about corruption in Ukraine. 

He called Egypt’s President al-Sisi a great leader.  He invited President Erdogan to the White House.  He admires Vladimir Putin and Roberto Duterte.  He has spoken endearingly of Kim Jung Un, and he has praised Xi Jinping and the Saudi Crown Prince.  How can one possibly reconcile embracing these ruthless, corrupt strongmen while at the same time throwing the book at Cuba, a tiny, impoverished country that poses no threat to the United States and whose people want closer ties with the United States?

This is what happens when national policy is subverted by local politics.  When promises derived from campaign contributions take precedence over the national interest.  When family grievances and the personal vindictiveness of a few with political influence trample on the aspirations of the majority of Americans.

This Administration’s policy toward Cuba is no different from past failed attempts to force the Cuban Government to transform itself into a democracy, or to incite the Cuban people to rise up and overthrow it.  It has not worked and it won’t work.  And in the meantime, the Russians are eagerly filling the vacuum, only this time it is 90 miles from Florida, not 6,000 miles away in Syria.  Russia’s Prime Minister Medvedev visited Cuba just three weeks ago.

No one is saying that we should provide aid, or sell weapons, to the Cuban Government the way this Administration does to despotic governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines. 

No one is saying that we should not criticize the Cuban Government for its repressive policies and its abuse of those who speak out for greater political, economic, and journalistic freedom. 

No one is saying that we should excuse Cuba’s support for Maduro, or for the corrupt and repressive Ortega Government in Nicaragua. 

What we are saying is that pursuing a policy that has failed for more than half a century is nonsensical, indefensible, and wrong.  It has achieved none of its objectives, while it is harming the Cuban people and infringing on the rights of the American people. 

And if we are serious about controlling the spread of deadly viruses; mitigating the effects of climate change; combatting organized crime, drug trafficking, and human trafficking; protecting fisheries and other marine resources; addressing the causes of migration; expanding export markets for American companies; and countering the influence of Russia and China in this hemisphere, we need to engage with every one of our neighbors whether we agree with their policies or not. 

I hope the new National Security Advisor will review this policy.  I hope he will put it to the test of time and common sense.  I hope he will assess whether it is achieving its objectives, and whether it is serving our national interests.  I hope he will ensure that the right people, who will put the national interest first, are the architects of our policy toward Cuba.  And I hope he will consult widely on ways to improve our policy, rather than rely on a handful of extreme voices that are not representative of the majority of the American people or the majority of Members of Congress.

 

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