Senator Menendez- Travel and Glass Houses

In public, Senator Bob Menendez is never a shy skeptic about certain kinds of travel.

He bitterly opposed reforms in 2009, to allow Cuban Americans unfettered travel rights to Cuba, and later teamed up with Senator Marco Rubio to oppose opening up people-to-people travel for most other Americans.  Early in the Obama presidency, Menendez, an environmentalist who believes in climate change, held up the nominations of John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco, world class scientists, to block a Senate bill with language to liberalize travel to Cuba (something his Hurricane Sandy-battered constituents probably never heard about).

When the Center for Democracy in the Americas was organizing a Cuba trip for Senate chiefs of staff, he and Senator Bill Nelson warned all of their colleagues not to allow their staffs to go (nobody listened).  At John Kerry’s confirmation hearing, he scolded Senator Jeff Flake, who joked about using “spring break” to disrupt the Cuban government’s hold on the island.

Like other hardliners, Senator Menendez even suggested that travel to Cuba was about little more than sexual tourism, as he did in this speech against Cuban American family travel four years ago.

Had Senator Menendez heeded his publicly expressed doubts about travel in private, he might not be in the hot water he finds himself today.  His story has moved swiftly from a lurid set of accusations – which the Senator denies, which some independent journalists and ethics watchdogs  doubt, and at least one late night comic has mocked – to issues involving a friend and donor, Dr. Salomon Melgen, that have ensnared him in investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Senate Ethics Committee.

These developments are serious, as Paul Kane of the Washington Post wrote, because his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee “makes him the top diplomat on Capitol Hill, someone tasked with greeting heads of state visiting Washington, and affords him the kind of public profile that prompts regular appearances on the Sunday morning political talk shows.”

Questions about his relationship with Dr. Melgen –described as “a high-profile Palm Beach ophthalmologist with major tax problems” –captured media attention this week when the FBI conducted a surprise raid on the doctor’s offices.

According to NBC News, the raid ostensibly “concerned a separate criminal probe conducted by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which typically investigates Medicare fraud. However, agents were also looking for evidence in the other case concerning the alleged under-aged prostitutes” and two airplane rides Menendez and Melgen took to the Dominican Republic.

The trips were never paid for by Senator Menendez or accounted for as gifts, as required under the rules of the Senate, an oversight which his staff attributed to “sloppy paperwork.” But, it’s more than that.  “It’s technically a federal crime to not report gifts on a federal financial-disclosure form,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility, to the Miami Herald.

Mr. Menendez has dug deep into his pockets and sent a check to Dr. Melgen’s company for $58,500 to clean up the error.  This could not have been easy for Mr. Menendez, who was ranked 79th among his Senate colleagues in wealth by the Center for Responsive Politics after reporting net assets of under $500,000 in 2010, according to the Washington Post.  By taking this route, rather than invoking what is called a “friendship exemption” and amending his filings with the Senate Ethics Committee, to clean up the error, he has avoided any requirements to make a public disclosure of details about the trips.  Surely, commercial flights would have been cheaper.

The payment will not make the attention go away. On Thursday, The New York Times reported on how Senator Menendez used his office and position to fight for a contract to help a company in which Dr. Melgen was an investor.  That company “had a long-dormant contract with the Dominican Republic to provide port security and x-ray cargo. Mr. Menendez, who is chairman of the Senate subcommittee that holds sway over the Dominican Republic, subsequently urged officials in the State and Commerce Departments to intervene so the contract would be enforced, at an estimated value of $500 million.”

The Times reports that Menendez spoke to State Department officials about the contract, and used a hearing he chaired last July to question State and Commerce Department officials about why they weren’t being more aggressive in getting the DR to honor the contract, even though his friend lacked border security experience.

According to the Miami Herald, Menendez’s office said the senator did nothing improper, he was a long-time champion for U.S. business abroad, and that “Senator Menendez has over the last few years advocated for more attention to the spread of narco-trafficking throughout Central America and the Caribbean.”

In light of Dr. Melgen’s political contributions to Menendez and others –more than $426,000 in campaign donations since 1992 – news organizations and investigators are likely to examine whether he crossed the line from business advocacy into the land of the quid pro quo.

Beyond dealing with a federal investigation, Senator Menendez is also facing a Senate Ethics inquiry.  Sen. Johnny Isakson (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the committee, told the Washington Post yesterday, “The Senate Ethics Committee is aware of the article in the Miami Herald and other media outlets, and we are following established procedures.”

The Department of Justice will neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.  As a long-time public servant told the Cuba Central News Blast, if the Senator was just an average Joe with a security clearance, that clearance would be suspended – and his access to classified information stopped –until the matters were satisfactorily resolved, one way or the other.  That’s not happening to Mr. Menendez, yet.

What is happening instead is quite telling.  At the White House, for example, Jay Carney, the press secretary, “declined to answer when asked whether the president still has full faith and confidence in Menendez. ‘I don’t have anything for you on that,’ Carney told reporters.”  Asked about the scandal, Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic Leader, praised his colleague as “an outstanding senator,” and then encouraged reporters to call his office.  “Any questions in this regard, direct to him. I don’t know anything about it.”  Allies like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who celebrated Menendez as “a proven leader and defender of human rights when he became chairman,” have said nothing at all.

Rather than dodging the press in New Jersey, as Mr. Menendez appears to be doing, perhaps he should be taking to heart in private what he said in public at John Kerry’s confirmation hearing:

“Yours is a big chair to fill, and I will do my best today to live up to your example. I have watched you lead the Committee with an equally deep and abiding commitment to getting to the heart of the matter — always probative, always open to debate, but always ready to mitigate disagreements, always looking for the truth — for answers – uncovering the facts, hearing all the evidence, and then publically speaking truth to power based solely on what was best for this nation.”

Unless he lives up to that standard, the Senator could put his power and new position at risk.


Nomination Watch

Confirmation hearings for former Senator Chuck Hagel, nominated to be Secretary of Defense, began Thursday in Washington before the Senate Armed Services Committee.  According to news accounts, Senator Hagel –long an advocate for ending the embargo and conducting normal relations with Cuba –may have lost ground in his testimony with Senators McCain (AZ), Graham (SC), and Cruz (TX), regarding his prior positions on the troop “surge” in the Iraq War, and past statements on Israel and Iran. Senator Marco Rubio announced Thursday that he will not vote in favor of Hagel’s nomination, in part because of Hagel’s opposition to the embargo against Cuba.

Meanwhile, on January 29th, Senator Kerry was confirmed as Secretary of State, 94-3, reports Boston Globe. Michigan Senator Carl Levin voiced his support in a floor statement saying:

Another issue on which I look forward to cooperating with Senator Kerry is our policy toward Cuba. Senator Kerry and I have similar voting records on United States policy towards Cuba. We also both recognize the need for policy that places maximum pressure on the Cuban regime to democratize. However, our voting records maintain that our Cuba policy is counter-productive in promoting change in Cuba. I look forward to working with Senator Kerry to rebalance our approach to Cuba as we look forward to a new era in that nation’s history and its relations with us.

U.S. Interests Section in Havana holds U.S. trivia contest via text messaging

The “ABC of the U.S.A” is the name of an ongoing contest being held by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Cubans are being asked to text in their answers to trivia questions. Correct responders are entered into a raffle from which five winners receive $11 worth of cell phone credit. The first round asked: What is the name of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech? 163 people responded. The second round, which closed on January 27 asked: What document does the President of the U.S. swear to defend when he takes office? Two more rounds are scheduled over the next two weeks.

OFAC travel regulations delay Florida Orchestra’s cultural exchange trip

The Florida Orchestra has been forced to postpone Cuba travel plans due to delays in its application for a travel license from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), reports the Tampa Times. The orchestra had planned to send concertmaster Jeffrey Multer to perform with the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba, as a soloist in the Sibelius Violin Concerto. He was also scheduled to give master classes while in Cuba. Other orchestra managers would have accompanied him to explore ideas for a trip by the entire orchestra in 2014.

OFAC, in charge of supervising sanctions and travel to Cuba, has been slow in granting licenses to the growing number of groups seeking them. Michael Pastreich, president of the orchestra, stated “The challenge OFAC is dealing with is that lots of people are going to Cuba now. Their staffing hasn’t increased to accommodate the flow.”

Obama states that relations with Cuba could progress

José Díaz-Balart of Telemundo recorded an interview with President Obama on Wednesday to be aired on Sunday, in which the President stated that over the course of his second term, relations with Cuba could progress as long as the process is “reciprocal,” according to the Associated Press. He also asserted that a normalization of relations “would be good for the Cuban people,” and affirmed that the loosening of travel and remittance regulations have already been beneficial.

Further changes, however, will not come unilaterally from the U.S., he said, “in order for us to see a normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba we have to do something with all of these political prisoners, who are still [in Cuba]. We have to do something about basic freedoms of the press and association.” President Obama expressed his hope that “slowly but surely, the Cuban leaders will begin to recognize that it’s time to join the 21st century…I want to say that it’s one thing to have cars from the 1950s, and it’s another when your entire political ideology is 50 or 60 years old and has proven unsuccessful.”

On January 29, outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced similar concerns, saying: “But there are some outliers. Unfortunately, we still have a dictatorship in Cuba, which we hope will change soon. We have democratic challenges in other countries in Latin America. But overall, I think that (…) there is great reason to be quite optimistic about the institutionalization of democracy throughout Latin America.”

Friday, Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s director of North American Affairs, responded to President Obama’s comments, saying that the truly anachronistic element of Cuba’s relationship with the U.S. is the U.S. embargo, reports the Associated Press. “It’s unfortunate that President Obama continues to be poorly advised and ill-informed about the Cuban reality, as well as the sentiments of his own people who desire normalization of our relationship,” she stated.

Florida state legislators seek to block Cuba-trained doctors from practicing in Florida

State Senator René García and State Representative Manny Díaz, Jr. introduced a pair of bills that would forbid U.S. citizens and residents, who travel to Cuba to receive medical training, from practicing medicine in Florida, reports Sunshine State News. According to Representative Díaz, Jr., whose father served as the attorney for the Miami relatives of Elián González, physicians who receive medical training in Cuba do not have sufficient “moral clarity to serve patients in Florida.” Senator Garcia, who is also Vice President of Dade Medical College, similarly stated those who study medicine in Cuba and return to Florida are mere “propaganda tools,” reports WLRN Miami.

Senator García has previously proposed legislation regarding Florida’s relations with Cuba, including last year’s law to prevent Florida’s government from granting contracts to companies that conduct business in Cuba. That law was never enforced, and is currently being challenged in a federal lawsuit on the grounds that it allows Florida to set its own foreign policy.

State Department appoints a new sanctions chief

The State Department has named Ambassador Dan Fried as the new coordinator for all U.S. sanctions worldwide, reports Foreign Policy. Fried will be charged with coordinating sanctions on various countries, including Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Burma. In his previous post, Ambassador Fried worked on resettling prisoners from Guantánamo Bay. A State Department official said: “Part of the theory is that there are sanctions tucked away all over the place, so you need an office where you can pull it all together and see what works…The strategic purpose of sanctions is to not have to do them anymore.”


Cuba to hold elections on Sunday

On Sunday, 612 deputies will be elected to the National Assembly of the People’s Power and 1,269 to the provincial assemblies. The candidates were previously elected by municipal delegates and public assemblies, reports Havana Times, which notes that countries like the United States consider the Cuba’s elections to be a democratic farce. However, the publication notes that official records show that voter participation has always been above 95% since the first elections were held in 1976. Currently there are 8.4 million citizens over the age of 16 who are eligible.

Fidel Castro is on the ballot for the municipality of Santiago de Cuba and President Raul Castro for the municipality of Segundo Frente, both in Santiago Province. The latter must win this low-level election to be eligible for the presidency. According to new term limits, this would be the last five year term that the younger Castro can serve as the head of state.

CDC issues outbreak notice for cholera; two die in Holguín from cholera

On January 31, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an outbreak notice for cholera in Cuba. The notice comes as the disease, which first appeared on the island last summer, has reappeared in several provinces. According to an article in Café Fuerte, two women, aged 42 and 79, died of cholera in Holguín, where there are currently over one hundred cases of suspected adult cholera and fifty suspected cases in children. Last week, we reported on a resurgence of the outbreak in Bayamo. An outbreak in Havana in early January has reportedly been contained.

Cuba’s government returns property to the Catholic Church

Authorities in Granma province returned two buildings and another parcel of land to the Catholic Church last Saturday, reports AFP. The land had been nationalized by the government in 1961. The gesture is an example of improving relations between Cuba and the Church, which began when President Raúl Castro opened a dialogue with Cardinal Jaime Ortega that lead to the release of hundreds of political prisoners.

Dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez receives passport

Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez has been issued a passport, which will allow her to travel outside of Cuba under the country’s new migratory rules that took effect January 14, reports the New York Times. Sánchez expressed happiness over receiving her passport, but she laments that some of her colleagues have yet to receive theirs.

Cuba’s government considers lifting ban on professional boxing

Cuban officials have met with representatives from the International Boxing Association (AIBA), the World Series of Boxing (WSB), and AIBA Pro Boxing (APB), to discuss the legalization of professional boxing on the island, reports Insidethegames. While amateur boxing is one of the most popular sports on the island, and Cuban boxers rank among the best in the Olympic Games, professional boxing is banned. If the ban is lifted, Cuban fighters would be able to compete professionally while retaining their Olympic eligibility.

Amnesty International classifies independent journalist Calixto Martínez as prisoner of conscience

Amnesty International called for the release of Cuban independent journalist Calixto Martínez and named him a prisoner of conscience in a press release Thursday. Martínez has been imprisoned in Cuba since September 16, 2012. Martínez was reportedly investigating allegations that medicine sent by the World Health Organization to fight the cholera outbreak was being held at the José Martí Airport in Havana. He was working for the non-state news agency Hablemos Press.


Raúl Castro named president pro tempore of CELACSummit with EU produces Santiago Declaration, including anti-embargo accord

Cuba’s President Raúl Castro assumed the role of president pro tempore of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) at last weekend’s summit in Santiago, Chile. Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera, who was president of CELAC for 2012, handed over the post as part of CELAC’s annual rotation of the presidency. The next CELAC summit will take place in Havana in 2014.

The heads of state of all CELAC countries, which comprises all of the Americas except the U.S. and Canada, were present at the summit save for Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, who sent a statement with his Vice President, Nicolás Maduro.

The summit also hosted the first CELAC-EU Dialogue, which brought together the leaders of sixty nations to sign the Santiago Declaration. Although the 48-point declaration is not legally binding, it pledges multilateral collaboration on issues including protectionism and cooperation, human rights, narcotics, and sustainable development, reports AFP. It also reiterates the United Nations General Assembly’s November 2012 resolution condemning the U.S. embargo against Cuba:

We firmly reject all coercive measures of unilateral character with extraterritorial effect that are contrary to international law and the commonly accepted rules of free trade. We agree that this type of practice poses a serious threat to multilateralism. In this context, and with reference to UNGA resolution A/RES/67/4, we reaffirm our well-known positions on the application of the extra-territorial provisions of the Helms-Burton Act.

The next CELAC-EU Dialogue will take place in Brussels, Belgium, in 2015.

Raúl Castro and Brazil’s former President da Silva Tour Havana Mariel Harbor Project

During a two-day visit to Cuba, Brazil’s former President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva joined Cuba’s President Raúl Castro in touring a massive development project currently underway in Cuba’s Mariel Harbor, reports the Cuban News Agency. The project is expected to allow Cuba to increase its exports and to promote further economic and industrial integration between the Caribbean and mainland Latin America. Brazil’s government has contributed US $800 million for the Mariel Harbor development project, reports Café Fuerte. While in Cuba, da Silva also met with former president Fidel Castro.

Around the Region

Chile asks the United States to extradite man accused in the murder of Víctor Jara

On Wednesday, Chilean courts asked the U.S. Government to extradite Pedro Pablo Barrientos, a former military official accused in the torture and death of legendary Chilean folk singer Victor Jara, reports AFP. Among the eight former military officials accused, Barrientos is the only one who lives outside of the country. Additional details on the case can be found here.

More Violence in Venezuela’s Prisons, David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernaíz, Venezuela Politics and Human Rights

This post by WOLA looks at a recent instance of rioting in one of Venezuela’s prisons. Reviewing the relationship between prison violence and the media, David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernaíz suggest that Venezuela improve its prison system’s administrative structure and address overcrowding, among other recommendations.

Recommended Reading

U.S.-Cuba Policy: A Boon for Cuban-American Entrepreneurs, Saul Landau and Nelson P. Valdes, Huffington Post

Citing the virtual monopoly over Cuba-Florida trade that Cuban-Americans enjoy, Saul Landau and Nelson P. Valdes call for an end to the embargo because of lost economic opportunity. South Florida and specifically Miami can benefit largely from the jobs and industry required to maintain trade with Cuba. If politics does not provide a case for ending the embargo, they argue, perhaps tax revenue will.

Alan Gross and Regime Change in Cuba, Jacob G. Hornberger, The Future of Freedom Foundation

Hornberger, founder and president of the libertarian Future of Freedom Foundation, argues that the revelations that continue to emerge surrounding Alan Gross’ case show something very different from the U.S. government’s official narrative: “What Gross was actually doing was serving as a cog in the U.S. national security state’s decades-long machinery designed to bring regime change to Cuba.”

Kerry, Hagel on Cuba: Cabinet Nominees Could Help Ease Relations, Lift Trade Embargo, Paul Haven, Associated Press

As both John Kerry, the Secretary of State, and Defense Secretary nominee, Chuck Hagel, have expressed openness towards improving relations with Cuba, Paul Haven suggests that this new cabinet can constitute a real step toward Cuba policy reform.  Challenges remain despite the promising picks, including the question of Alan Gross. Nevertheless, having both men in seats of power points to possible shifts in the future.

Is Cuba the Next Emerging Market?, Alexa van Sickle, Forbes

Alexa van Sickle notes already-sizeable agricultural exports to Cuba in recent years, and suggests that American companies should start thinking about investment opportunities in Cuba.

An Alan Gross Reader, Phil Peters, The Cuban Triangle

A continuation of the series on Alan Gross that we have brought to the Blast through Tracey Eaton’s Along the Malecón, the Cuban Triangle adds new insight to the Gross case and summarizes the information available thus far.

Best Time for U.S.-Cuba Rapprochement Is Now, Larry Birns and Frederick B. Mills, Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Larry Birns and Fredrick B. Mills of COHA make the case for why and how the US should improve relations with Cuba.

MEDICC Review Publishes Special Issue: Cuba Tackles Diabetes, SFGate

In January, Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC) has published a special issue dealing with diabetes, reports SFGate. MEDICC Review is the only English-language journal focusing on Cuban health and medicine. The  issue includes articles exploring the disease in women and young people.

Recommended Viewing

Trailer: Through Their Eyes, Bill Gentile, Los Gentiles Productions

The trailer to this documentary, which features CDA intern Dara Jackson-Garrett, follows the experiences of six American University students while studying abroad in Cuba. Announcements about Through Their Eyes can be found on the documentary’s Facebook page.

Baseball defector returns to Cuba, Patrick Oppmann, CNN

CNN reports on the recent return of baseball player José Contreras to Cuba.

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