As Donor/Pal Flies “Under the Radar,” Will Senator Menendez Mind His Words Or Eat Them?

A curious angle to the story about Senator Bob Menendez and his relationship to Dr. Salomon Melgen, his donor-benefactor-travel pal, has gotten obscured in the larger ethical churn.

Dr. Melgen is the ophthalmologist who donated tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Senator Menendez, and took Mr. Menendez on his private plane to the Dominican Republic (D.R.) for vacations in 2010 that the Senator did not disclose.

For his part, Menendez lobbied the U.S. government to get its support for a port security contract in the D.R. for the doctor’s company, and intervened on Melgen’s behalf by questioning a government audit that revealed overbilling in the doctor’s practice.

The Senator sent a reimbursement check for $58,500 to Melgen’s company after the unreported flights became public, which relieved Menendez of the responsibility to make a public disclosure about his trips with the eye doctor, and appears to have cost him an ‘arm and a leg’.

Now, Dr. Melgen, as was reported earlier this month, has asked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to “block his plane’s flight activity from public view in air trafficking systems.”  He seems eager to cover the trail (or the contrail).

Stunningly, the FAA agreed and will allow Dr. Melgen to keep his flight records secret; this applies not only to future flights, but also to on-line access to historical records.

In “Doctor now flying under the radar,” Tracey Eaton, an investigative reporter with whom our organization is working, has posted a detailed piece about Dr. Melgen, the FAA’s powers of disclosure and authority to keep records secret, and why its decision to shield records Melgen’s flights raises issues around accountability and transparency, and possibly the Menendez investigation itself.

As Mr. Eaton writes:

“In January, before the flight activity was blocked, the Associated Press reported that Melgen’s plane had made more than 100 trips to the Dominican Republic and about a dozen flights included brief stopovers in the Washington area.”

Is there anyone in the Congress who might think Melgen’s request was a little fishy?  Or, that the FAA’s decision is antithetical to the idea of good and open government?

How about Senator Bob Menendez, a champion of disclosure?

  • In 2010, he took credit for writing provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act, which toughened regulation after the economic crisis, to increase transparency in the trading of the financial instrument called derivatives.
  • In 2011, he organized a letter cosigned by nine Senate colleagues to the Department of Transportation demanding that airlines disclose their fees.
  • That same year, he sponsored legislation with a section to require disclosure by companies for certain business activities with Iran.
  • In 2012, he sponsored legislation to require corporations to disclose their campaign donations to shareholders, following the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.
  • As a candidate for reelection in 2012, Menendez released five years of his tax returns, as a spokesman explained, in the full spirit of transparency.
  • Only a few weeks ago, when Senator Menendez traveled to Afghanistan, he told President Karzai that the U.S. expects elections in his country next year to be fair, free, and (you guessed it) transparent.

Senator Menendez even told a constituent a few years back that he’d consider supporting legislation to protect coastal New Jersey’s fish population, because he believed in transparency in the management of fisheries.

Isn’t the Senator’s next step, well, transparently obvious?

He could do nothing; eat his words on disclosure and transparency.  Or, he could write the FAA and demand that the shield concealing Dr. Melgen’s flight records be removed.  Nothing could be more consistent with what Senator Menendez has said – and wanted others to do – in the last three years alone.

Besides, what else could he have to hide?

Coming Soon: “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future”

“It’s really embarrassing that we have not solved this problem in more than half a century.”
-President Raúl Castro, April 16, 2011, before the 6th Congress of the Communist Party

Just in time for International Women’s Day, March 8, 2013, the Center for Democracy in the Americas will publish the results of its two-year study on women in Cuba and their progress toward gender equality.

The report discusses the high rankings earned by Cuba from international organizations that rate nations on their policies affecting women and children, candidly identifies where Cuba falls short, presents evidence on why increasing participation by women in Cuba can help their nation meet its economic challenges, and suggests policy proposals for achieving this goal. For more information and a link to the executive summary of the report, click here.


Cuba’s National Assembly to elect its leaders February 24

Cuba’s 8th National Assembly of the People’s Power will convene for its first session on February 24, during which it will elect not only top officials in the national assembly, but also Cuba’s Council of State, reports Cuban News Agency.  Cuba’s president, first vice president, five additional vice presidents, a secretary, and 23 other members comprise the Council of State.

President Raúl Castro, who is expected to begin his second five-year term in office this weekend, has warned that he is getting old and has the right to retire, reports AP. He urges everyone to tune into his speech on Sunday, “It will be an interesting speech,” he said. “Pay attention.”

The National Assembly, which will convene just three weeks after the February 3 elections took place for its 612 members, will be led by someone other than Ricardo Alarcon, for the first time in twenty years.

Cuba authorizes state payments in convertible currency to self-employed contractors, broadens access to loans

Cuba’s government this week announced two economic reforms that will significantly affect Cubans’ access to loans and convertible pesos (CUC).

The first policy change will allow state companies and institutions to pay contracted self-employed workers, or cuentapropistas, in Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs), reports Café Fuerte. The change, announced in the Gaceta Oficial on February 21st, is expected to take effect immediately.  It  requires that payments made be incorporated into annual budgets and plans, and that payments be made by checks, cards, promissory notes, and bills of exchange, but not in cash. Workers who may now bill government entities in CUCs include food service providers, cuentapropistas in the tourism industry, and those doing minor repair work such as plumbing. Those directly selling agricultural goods will not be paid in CUCs.

The second announced reform greatly expands access to loans, allowing Cubans to use personal property, such as cars, jewelry, and works of art, as collateral for loan applications, reports the Associated Press. Loans in Cuba have previously been difficult to obtain, as many Cubans lack the liquid assets or traditional forms of credit typically required by banks.  The law is expected to help Cuba’s private sector employees, as well as its growing population of cuentapropistas, or self-employed entrepreneurs, reports Prensa Latina.

Cuba to change subsidized water rates

Aymé Aguirre Hernández, vice president of the National Institute of Water Resources, says that Cubans will begin paying for water according to usage along with other sanitary services, reports Prensa Latina.

The shift, part of the National Policy on Water, is designed to create a more conscious attitude about avoiding waste. Aguirre Hernández added the initiative would be an important contribution to both Cuba’s economic model and the health of the Cuban people, and would benefit the environment. According to Aguirre Hernández’s statement, the state will continue to fund projects with important social impact, and money saved from the changes will be re-invested into the country’s water services.


U.S. Members of Congress meet with Raúl Castro, Alan Gross, and family members of the Cuban Five

A delegation of seven U.S. Senators and Representatives, led by Senator Patrick Leahy (VT), visited Havana early this week, where they met with President Raúl Castro and other top government officials, and visited imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross, reports Reuters. Members of the delegation include Senators Jeff Flake (AZ), Sherrod Brown (OH), Debbie Stabenow (MI), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), as well as Congressmen James McGovern (MA) and Chris Van Hollen (MD), who represents Gross’ district.

After arriving in Cuba, Senator Leahy spoke privately with President Castro and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez about matters “of interest for both countries,” according to state newspaper Granma.  The entire U.S. delegation then joined Leahy, Castro, and Rodríguez for a larger meeting, reports Reuters.

In a statement to the press, Sen. Leahy announced that the delegation “met with President Raúl Castro and discussed the continuing obstacles and the need to improve relations between our two countries.” The same day, Sen. Leahy and Rep. Chris Van Hollen paid a visit to Alan Gross, reports the Washington Post. Diplomatic sources told the Associated Press that members of the delegation also met “quietly” with the wives of the “Cuban Five,” Cuban agents currently serving prison terms in the U.S., though what was discussed at the meeting remains unknown.

Upon the conclusion of the visit, Senator Leahy told the Associated Press, “I had very good talks with President Castro (and) with others also, and I’ll talk to President Obama when I get back and I will fill him in on those talks. I’ll also give him my recommendations.”

Following the delegation’s meetings with President Castro and others, Rep. McGovern remarked, “They are interested in improving relations because it is in their interest. I feel they are really interested in sitting down and engaging, where everything is on the table — the embargo, the travel restrictions, migration, everything,” reports the Boston Globe.

Staffers indicated to the press that one step the U.S. could take toward warming relations between the U.S. and Cuba would be to remove Cuba from the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, although it appears neither the White House nor the State Department heard that message.

Cuba Study Group/Council of the Americas urge market opening with Cuba

Invoking the names of President Bill Clinton, who signed the Helms-Burton sanctions into law, and Cuban dissident Yoani Sánchez, The Cuba Study Group and the Council of the Americas, published concurrent reports this week, urging President Barack Obama to “break free of the embargo on Cuba and assert his (executive) authority to promote a free-market overhaul” taking place on the island, Bloomberg reported.

Urging action by the United States, Chris Sabatini, senior policy director for the Council of the Americas, told Bloomberg, “We’ve been sitting on the sidelines with our hands tied by an antiquated law that’s being too strictly interpreted….There’s more Obama can do to be a catalyst for meaningful economic change.”

The Cuba Study Group report, “Restoring Executive Authority Over U.S. Policy Toward Cuba,” calls Helms-Burton a failure and a strategic obstacle that prevents effective responses to developments in Cuba by the U.S. government.   It goes on to recommend repeal of Helms-Burton and propose additional policy steps the U.S. government can take to provide exports markets in the U.S. and increase access to capital for private entrepreneurs.

State Department rebuts claims that Cuba could drop from State Sponsors of Terrorism list

Soon after an article published in the Boston Globe Thursday reported that Cuba’s time on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism may soon end, the State Department and the White House denied any movement on the issue.

The Globe reported that “high-level U.S. diplomats have concluded that Cuba should no longer be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism.”  But, in response to a question about the article, State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland stated, “Let me say firmly here it is incorrect. This Department has no current plans to remove Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list.”

Ms. Nuland went on to explain, “We review this every year, and at the current moment we – when the last review was done in 2012, we didn’t see cause to remove them.” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney echoed Ms. Nuland’s assertion, stating in a briefing Thursday, “We have no changes in our approach or policy to Cuba to announce or under consideration that I’m aware of.”

Hagel nomination nears nod from Senate

After a protracted fight, it appears that former Senator Chuck Hagel has finally garnered the sufficient number of votes to secure his confirmation as Secretary of Defense, reports the Associated Press. According to news accounts, a decision by Senator Richard Shelby (AL), to change his position after joining last week’s filibuster by the Senate Minority to block Hagel’s confirmation, gives Hagel the votes he needs to move forward toward confirmation.

The Senate is expected to vote as early as Wednesday. If confirmed, Hagel will join Secretary of State John Kerry as a second member of President Obama’s security cabinet with a track record of advocacy for ending the embargo and conducting normal relations with Cuba.

Yoani Sánchez calls for an end to the embargo

Blogger Yoani Sánchez, called “the world’s best known Cuban dissident” by the Miami Herald is making her first trip outside of Cuba, made possible by the travel reforms recently implemented by Cuba’s government.

During her first stop in Brazil, she said recent economic reforms in Cuba are “going in the right direction but are very slow and not very deep,” and criticized real estate reforms for “uprooting the poor.”

She arrived in Brazil to a mixed response, reports ABC. Pro-Castro protesters caused her to cancel an appearance at a film festival, the core purpose of her trip, where a documentary featuring an interview with her was to be screened.

However, she was able to make this statement to the press, before leaving under police escort:

“I am against the embargo for several reasons: 1) to me is seems interventionist, 2) to me it seems to be a fossil of the Cold War, that makes no sense in the modern word in which we live and 3) to me it seems that it is the best argument that the Cuban government has for explaining its inefficient economy.” (video here.)

When these heretical views were heard in the U.S., she was patronized as “not infallible,” by the hardline activists who often champion her cause who, in turn, produced other dissidents who disagree with Yoani on U.S. policy.

In anticipation of Ms. Sánchez’s visit to Washington, D.C. in March, Senator Bill Nelson (FL) has invited her to appear before the U.S. Senate, reports El Nuevo Herald. Also on Ms. Sánchez’s itinerary are visits to New York, Amsterdam, and Miami.


Russia’s Prime Minister visits Cuba, inks agreement to forgive partially Cuba’s Cold War-era debt

Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev arrived in Cuba Thursday for an official visit to discuss options for diversifying trade and increasing bilateral projects, reports the Global Times. Medvedev and Cuba’s President Raúl Castro also signed an accord in which Russia will partially forgive and refinance Cuba’s unpaid debt accrued during the Cold War, reports Reuters.

The two leaders discussed broadening economic cooperation and, according to Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, they plan to sign an agreement pledging cooperation for space research. Included in the agreement are provisions to enhance cooperation in telecommunications, satellite navigation, space medicine and biology, and the training of Cuban personnel.

Cuba initiates round of diplomatic visits with European Union

Mirtha Hormilla, Cuba’s ambassador to the EU, representing Cuba in its new capacity as pro-tempore president of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), has begun a series of diplomatic meetings with various European commissioners, reports EFE. The “courtesy” visits are meant to explore future forms of regional cooperation, including enhancing educational exchange.  By assuming the presidency of CELAC, Cuba also assumed vice-presidency of the EU-CELAC bi-regional association, which could allow Cuba to engage the European Union in new ways diplomatically.

Around the Region

The Battle for Washington, Héctor Silva Ávalos, El Faro/Center for Democracy in the Americas

Héctor Silva Ávalos, CDA advisory board member and Associate Investigator at the Center for Latin American Studies of American University, writes on the lobbying map being drawn out by El Salvador’s various political parties to gain favor in Washington, D.C. in anticipation of the country’s 2014 presidential elections. The Spanish version, published in El Faro, can be found here.

Amnesty International calls for investigation into death of brother of human rights lawyer Antonio Trejo

On February 22nd, Amnesty International called upon the government of Honduras to urgently investigate the death of José Trejo, recently gunned down on his motorbike outside of Tocoa. Esther Major, a researcher for Central America at Amnesty International stated, “The authorities must not stay silent in the face of this crime and commit to a policy of zero tolerance for attacks on human rights defenders.”

Trejo’s brother Antonio, a prominent human rights lawyer, was killed in September of last year. He had represented peasant cooperatives in the ongoing Bajo Aguán land dispute, and had made public statements about the powerful interests behind the push for “Charter Cities” in Honduras. A statement from the Movimiento Unificado Campesino de Aguán can be found here.

Caracas Connect: Chávez Returns – but has much really changed?, Dr. Dan Hellinger, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Dr. Dan Hellinger analyzes the implications of the return to Venezuela of President Hugo Chávez early this week, following two months of medical treatment and convalescing in Cuba.

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Recommended Reading

Dreams from an American-born Cuban,Vanessa Garcia, The Miami Herald

Vanessa Garcia refers to herself as an ABC, American-Born Cuban, and describes how her generation is different than their parents’ and grandparents’.  She writes, “There are thousands like me, men and women who were born in Miami, have left and come back to change it….Our English is perfect, but Spanish runs inside us like an ancient river coursing through, opening Cuban tributaries that spill into our American selves. Many of us took in Obama’s Hope and Change and we spread it to our parents, we are part of the contagion that turned our red state blue.”

Alan Gross: Time to Negotiate, Arturo López-Levy, Huffington Post

Arturo López-Levy provides a nuanced response to many of the arguments surrounding the imprisonment of Alan Gross in Cuba. He starts by outlining the fallacy of calling Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, which has been used by opponents of engagement as an excuse for not negotiating Gross’s case. Levy makes it clear that Gross was arrested, not taken hostage, and is thus a victim of the U.S. policy of regime change in Cuba. Levy suggests more creative solutions for the way the United States deals with Cuba going forward.

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