A day after President Obama touted his normalization of relations with Cuba — and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) sat quietly while other applauded at the State of the Union address — the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee is reminding Secretary of State John Kerry of “serious concerns” about the process.
Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta S. Jacobson traveled to Havana today to “launch a discussion with the Cuban Government on re-establishing diplomatic relations,” according to the State Department.
Menendez wrote Kerry a letter asking that, as Jacobson makes the trip, he would “recall that the hardships faced by the Cuban people do not stem from failures in U.S. policy or actions taken by our government.”
“In Cuba, the tragic absence of basic personal freedoms, democratic elections, a free press, and a market economy based on respect for private property is the sole result of five cruel decades of authoritarian rule by Fidel and Raul Castro. For over half a century, the Castros have forsaken their citizens and the development of a modern, open society in pursuit of a police state designed to suppress the aspirations of the Cuban people. This indisputable truth should serve as the foundation for discussions with the Castro regime,” the senator said.
“While I believe that there should be conditions precedent on democratic principles, human rights, and political prisoners before agreeing to meet, the following issues should be raised by our government this week.”
The first issue, Menendez said, must be political prisoners. Of the 53 releases announced by Obama, three have already been re-arrested.
“Several of the political prisoners who were released by the Castro regime have been granted only provisional freedom and continue to live under significant restrictions,” he added. “…Days after the President’s announcement, the Castro regime arrested and detained more than 50 Cubans that sought to test this historic moment and publicly share their vision for the future of the country.”
“It is imperative that Assistant Secretary Jacobson uses this week’s meetings to demand the unconditional freedom of the 53 political prisoners and demand an end to the politically motived arrests of peaceful democracy and human rights activists.”
On normalization of relations, Menendez noted that the administration “has not provided details about how it will hold the Castro regime to account for the more than $6 billion in outstanding claims by American citizens and businesses for properties confiscated by the Castros or the more than $2 billion in unpaid civil and criminal judgments rendered against the Castro regime by U.S. courts.”
Another issue that must be brought up, he told Kerry, is Cuba’s harboring of U.S. fugitives.
“Given that the Department of State is reviewing Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, I am concerned there has been no mention as to whether the Castro regime will return the dozens of U.S fugitives that receive sanctuary in Cuba, including Joanne Chesimard, who is on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s list of Most Wanted Terrorists. Ms. Chesimard is wanted for the 1971 murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster and her case is of particular concern to Trooper Foerster’s family, the men and women of the New Jersey State Police, and the citizens of my home state,” Menendez wrote.
“State Department and FBI reporting indicates that, as of 2007, the Castro regime is harboring more than 70 American fugitives wanted for their involvement in the murder of U.S. law enforcement personnel, arms trafficking, and the hijacking of airplanes. It is of the utmost importance that Assistant Secretary Jacobson insists that these fugitives be immediately returned to the United States to face justice for their deplorable crimes.”
Menendez urged Kerry to “link the pace of changes in U.S. policy to reciprocal action from the Castro regime” as the administration charges forward with its plans for increased engagement.