Breaking News: Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) Facing Federal Corruption Charges

Senator Bob Menendez, shown here on Twitter celebrating National Pancake Day earlier this week, has something a little more serious on his plate this afternoon.

CNN is reporting that Menendez, New Jersey’s senior Senator, and the former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will face federal criminal corruption charges for allegedly using his Senate office to promote the business interests of Dr. Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist.

Under a headline reading, “Menendez Expected to Face Federal Corruption Charges,” the New York Times indicates that federal prosecutors are focused on gifts Mr. Menendez received from Dr. Melgen in exchange for official acts.

Charges could be filed within a matter of weeks.

Evidence of his problems surfaced in 2013 when Menendez had to pay back $58,000 for free trips to the Dominican Republic he’d taken on Melgen’s plane.  Later, there were charges of impropriety after the Senator defended Melgen against Medicare’s accusations that he had overbilled for services in his eye care practice, and helped Melgen who sought a port screening security contract in the Dominican Republic.

“In the past,” as the National Journal reported this afternoon, “Menendez has denied any wrongdoing.” On occasions, he has blamed Cuban intelligence agents for pushing the allegations against him, and called the Justice Department probe a part of their smear campaign, as The Daily News remembered today.

But, the New Jersey Advance reported last week, “a current aide and a former counsel” to Senator Menendez filed an appeal to a federal district court order that they testify before a grand jury looking into the Senator’s conduct.  This afternoon, a spokeswoman for Menendez said in a statement carried by the Washington Post, “we believe all of the Senator’s actions have been appropriate and lawful and the facts will ultimately confirm that.”

Senate seats in New Jersey are not without controversy.  On May 1, 1981, the late Senator Harrison “Pete” Williams was convicted on nine counts of bribery and conspiracy for promising to use his office to further a business venture, as the New York Times reported.

Two decades later, Senator Bob Torricelli, also a New Jersey Democrat, withdrew from his 2002 reelection campaign after being “severely admonished” by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting gifts from a donor in exchange for having intervened on his behalf in overseas business deals (earlier, a yearlong Justice Department investigation ended without charges being filed).

Torricelli was the primary author of the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, which codified and strengthened sanctions against Cuba, barred ships that dock in Cuba from landing at U.S. ports for six months, and prohibited foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba.

Menendez has been a fierce critic of U.S. policy toward Cuba under President Obama.  In response to the deal struck between the two countries to resume diplomatic relations, he said Obama had “vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government” and would “invite further belligerence” toward human rights and democracy advocates.”

Writing for the editorial page of New Jersey’s Star-Ledger newspaper, Tom Moran observed, “Menendez has been a thorn in President Obama’s side of late, opposing him on Iran and Cuba.  Now, it seems, he will be busy for a while defending his own neck.”


President Obama aims for reopening embassies in U.S. and Cuba by April

In an interview with Reuters, President Obama said he hopes to see the U.S. and Cuba re-establish embassies before the Summit of the Americas takes place in Panama. President Obama and Cuba’s President Raúl Castro are both expected to attend the Summit, which meets April 10-11.

The upcoming Summit will be the first to include Cuba, barred from attending at the behest of the United States since the first Summit in 1994. When the leaders of the Hemisphere last convened at the 2012 Summit meeting in Colombia, they adjourned without issuing a final statement due to disagreements between the U.S. and the region over Cuba’s exclusion.

On December 17, 2014, President Obama and President Castro announced their intention to re-establish diplomatic relations that had been severed in 1961. In January, the Obama Administration significantly eased restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba, and a historic diplomatic meeting took place in Havana between U.S. and Cuban diplomats to begin negotiations on reestablishing bilateral ties.

The second round of talks, which took place last week in Washington, concluded on a positive note. Although the two sides did not reach a final agreement on diplomatic relations, a series of talks are planned to discuss human trafficking, civil aviation, Internet access in Cuba, changes in U.S. trade and travel regulations, and human rights.

Cuban officials have said their country’s removal from the U.S. State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list is a “priority,” but not a necessarily a pre-condition to reestablishing relations. U.S. officials have repeatedly asserted that they are working to complete the review as quickly as possible.

Cuba was first placed on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list in 1982 during the Reagan administration for reasons that have been increasingly difficult for the U.S. to justify. The State Department’s most recent report said “there was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.”

On Thursday, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (FL) sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urging him not to take Cuba off the list.

White House proposes making Radio Martí­ independent entity

The budget submitted to Congress last month by President Obama included a provision that would make Radio and Television Martí non-governmental entities, Reuters reports.

The administration’s proposal, first disclosed by BBG Watch, would authorize the Broadcasting Board of Governors to establish the Martís as a private, non-profit organization.  According to the 2016 budget submission, this entity would not be considered a federal agency, but would be required to adhere to the “same standards or professionalism and accountability required of all Broadcasting Board of Governors broadcasters.”

The programs were created in 1983 to provide anti-Castro news programming to listeners and viewers in Cuba. Cuba’s government jammed the signal shortly after the program’s launch, and today the broadcasts reach less than 1% of Cuba’s population, despite costing U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars annually, according to a Government Accountability Office audit.

The U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the parent agency for Radio and TV Martí, has repeatedly drawn criticism for unfair labor practices and wasteful management.

Conan O’Brien takes show to Cuba

TBS late-night show host Conan O’Brien aired an episode titled “Conan in Cuba” Wednesday night that showed the comedian in Havana talking with people on the streets, taking salsa lessons, touring a rum museum, visiting a cigar factory, and declaring “Yo soy Nutella” during a musical number with the band, Moncada.

“What I’m hoping really comes across in the special is obviously there’s this incredibly complicated history,” O’Brien said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “What I wanted to do is say OK, untangling that is going to be chaotic and it’s going to take a long time and be difficult, this is just about me meeting people and trying to make friends and doing it with humor and generosity of spirit and I do think we accomplished that.”

An hour-long Q&A session with Conan and his writers about the trip can be seen here.

Network news anchors Scott Pelley and David Muir have each visited Havana for special editions of their shows in the weeks following the Obama Administration’s easing of trade and travel restrictions. Conan, however, is the first late-night talk show host to visit Cuba since Jack Paar interviewed Fidel Castro in 1959.

Amazon shows interest in shipping to Cuba

In a sign that the company may be exploring commercial possibilities in Cuba, a “ship to Cuba” option appeared on Amazon’s website for customers on the island, Reuters reports.

Attempts by the news agency’s reporters to use the new option returned error messages which read:  “Due to export controls and economic sanctions laws and regulations, we are unable to process transactions from your current location.”

Amazon has not yet weighed in publicly on doing business in Cuba, but the appearance of the new option could indicate CEO Jeff Bezos, who has family connections to Cuba, is considering expanding to the once off-limits Cuban market.


State media hosts forum on elections, announces new “Electoral Law”

Juventud Rebelde, one of Cuba’s main daily state-run newspapers, published the results of an online forum that asked readers to weigh in on Cuba’s electoral process.

“I’d like to know if the possibility of a direct vote for the top leadership positions in the country is under consideration,” one reader asked. “The current system is (in my view) highly unpopular.”

In responding to readers’ questions, the newspaper announced that the government was working on the enactment of a new “Electoral Law,” without giving more details.

Under the current system, Cubans elect pre-screened candidates to municipal positions that then elect higher-ranking leaders. All candidates are members of the Communist party, and candidates are not permitted to debate or oppose government policies.

Fidel Castro led Cuba’s government from 1959 to 2006, when he fell gravely ill.  A transition then took place with Raúl Castro, first serving as acting president, and then elected to two terms in his own right.  In 2013, he announced that he would not seek another term and would step down in 2018.

In January, the government announced that the 614-member National Assembly would move back into the Capitolio building that held Cuba’s Congress before the 1959 revolution. Some in the U.S. have interpreted that announcement as a sign that Cuban authorities are looking to modernize the relationship between Cuba’s government and its people.

Fidel meets with Cuban Five for first time

Fidel Castro met with the Cuban Five in his home over the weekend, according to an article Castro wrote for the state-run news website Cubadebate. The long-anticipated gathering is the first time the former leader has met with all five of the Cuban men who received long prison sentences following their arrests on espionage charges in Miami in 1998.

In the intervening years, President Castro made the return of the men, referred to as the “Five Heroes,” central to Cuba’s foreign policy agenda with the U.S.

“The five anti-terrorist heroes, who never did any damage to the United States, were trying to prevent and impede terrorist acts against our people that, it is well known, were organized by U.S. intelligence services,” Castro wrote.

While two of the agents finished their terms and were allowed to return to Cuba, the remaining three were held in U.S. prisons until December 17, 2014, when they were released as part of a larger agreement struck between the U.S. and Cuba to normalize diplomatic relations.

Last week, President Raúl Castro, who saluted the Cuban Five in his remarks about the historic breakthrough to Cuba’s National Assembly on December 20th, honored the Five as “Heroes of the Republic.”


Third round of talks with EU end on positive note

Cuban and European negotiators met Wednesday and Thursday in Brussels for the third set of meetings on diplomatic and trade relations, Reuters reports.

Last April, Cuba and the EU began negotiations to bring an end to the Common Position, which was adopted in 1996 and suspended economic and diplomatic cooperation with Cuba pending “improvements in human rights and political freedom” and an “irreversible opening of the Cuban economy.”

Abelardo Moreno, Cuba’s deputy foreign minister and chief negotiator for the EU talks, said in a statement Wednesday that the two sides made progress on labor, culture, education, health, and agriculture.

Chief EU negotiator Christian Leffler said the rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba “lifts a cloud that has been hanging over the region… We very much welcome the step of the United States away from confrontation.”

The next round of talks is expected to take place in Brussels later this spring, when Leffler says the topic of human rights will be addressed in detail.

Last of Tokmakjian managers released to Canada

Weeks after Cuban authorities released CEO Cy Tokmakjian, the three remaining employees of the Tokmakjian Group jailed for participation in a corruption scandal have been sent back to Canada, the Financial Post reports.

Tokmakjian, who served four years of a fifteen-year sentence for financial crimes including bribery, fraud, and tax evasion, was freed after Canada assisted in the negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba which led to December’s diplomatic breakthrough.

The Ontario-based transportation firm Tokmakjian Group had been doing business in Cuba for some 20 years before three of its Canadian executives and 14 Cubans connected to the firm were arrested in 2011 in the midst of a corruption sweep initiated by President Raúl Castro.

Tokmakjian was charged with having bribed high-level Cuban officials with expensive meals, week-long beach vacations, rides on a private yacht, and flat-screen televisions.

Spain asks the U.S. for help extraditing ETA members

Spain’s Foreign Minister José Manuel García Margallo told reporters that Spain has asked the U.S. to use the diplomatic talks currently underway with Havana to push for the extradition of Basque National Liberation Movement (ETA) members José Angel Urtiaga and José Ignacio Etxarte to Spain, where they have been wanted since 2010 for allegedly carrying out grenade-launching tests with FARC members in Venezuela, the AP reports.

The guerrilla war waged by the Basque separatists against Spanish authority claimed over 800 lives before a ceasefire was reached in 2011. Cuba was one of the many countries that supported the peace agreement between Spain’s government and the ETA, ending the longest violent conflict in European history.

Last week, Spain’s former Prime Minister Luis Zapatero called on the U.S. to remove Cuba from its State Sponsors of Terrorism list, angering many of the conservative politicians currently leading Spain’s government.

Colombia detains Chinese ship headed to Cuba

A ship owned by Chinese company COSCO and bound for Cuba was detained and its captain arrested by Colombian authorities for carrying unregistered gunpowder, cannon shells, and other materials produced by Chinese arms manufacturer Norinco, Reuters reports.

Some have compared the ship’s detention to a 2013 incident when the North Korean ship Chong Chan Gang was intercepted by Panama and discovered to be illegally transporting arms from Cuba stashed beneath tons of sugar. In July 2014, Ocean Maritime Management, which operated the ship, was blacklisted by the UN for its role in trying to circumvent UN sanctions against arms sales to the country.

Chinese officials, however, have denied any wrongdoing. Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said the shipment is “completely normal military trade cooperation” that doesn’t violate international law.

President of France announces plans to visit Cuba

President Francois Hollande will be the first French head of state to visit Cuba when he makes a stop on the island during a tour of the Caribbean planned to take place in May, France 24 reports. The president’s trip will focus on trade opportunities with Cuba, as well as environmental preservation and cultural exchange.

According to Le Monde, French companies are worried that the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement could increase competition for the Cuban market. “European businesses, especially French and Spanish ones, have had a head start on the island thanks to the US embargo. They will soon have to contend with US competition,” the article says. “François Hollande’s visit will therefore be an opportunity to underscore Europe’s newfound willingness to do business, before the predictable landing of the Americans.”

Recommended Reading

What I Learned in Cuba, Senator Claire McCaskill

Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri traveled to Cuba with the Center for Democracy in the Americas in February to explore trade opportunities for her state and to learn more about Cuba’s growing private sector. In this column, the Senator tells of her experience meeting young entrepreneurs and identifying ways to create jobs in her state by exporting agricultural products to the island. “By far, the biggest surprise in Cuba for me was the warmth and affection the Cuban people have for America,” she says. “The families and business owners, farmers and ranchers, urban planners and healthcare workers I met were universally excited at what the future may hold for our countries.”

5 Things Cuba Can Do to Speed the Normalization of Relations With the United States, William LeoGrande, Huffington Post

LeoGrande offers five ways Cuba’s government can move the normalization process forward without compromising their sovereignty: (1) “Send a broadly representative civil society to the Summit of the Americas,” (2) “Cooperate with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations Human Rights Council,” (3) “Expand Internet access,” (4) “Facilitate U.S. trade with the private sector,” and (5) “Work with the United States to refocus democracy programs.”

Ecotourism in Cuba: A model for sustainable economic development, Douglas Rader and Dan Whittle, Environmental Defense Fund

“By scaling up its small and exclusive ecotourism industry, Cuba can stimulate investment and create jobs, while preserving the coral reefs and big fish that make it one of the world’s most special places. […] If and when Cuba matches up the ecological values of different areas in the region with their highest and best economic uses, it can create a portfolio of approaches that can serve Cubans – and those of us down-current from Cuba – now and in the future.”

Young Cuban artists testing the boundaries of dissent, Tracy Wilkinson, LA Times

Wilkinson profiles “an increasingly restive young generation of Cubans using music, art and other creative forms to express themselves on a communist-ruled island that often represses dissent and criticism.”

Dividing the Pie: Cuba’s Ration System after 50 years, Medea Benjamin, Telesur

For some, the libreta, Cuba’s ration booklet, symbolizes Cuba’s failure to modernize its economy. For others, it represents the country’s revolutionary commitment to its people’s welfare. “Both are right,” says Benjamin. “With so many starving people still around the world, Cuba could be a model of how to grow the pie-and make sure that everyone gets a piece.”

Cuba + internet = democracy (?), Matías Bianchi, openDemocracy

As Internet access in Cuba grows, “What we shall perhaps find is a greater number of more nuanced voices, such as that of independent artists, students and journalists who, while deeply concerned and desiring change, do not have a radicalised, ideological perspective. Current oppositionists are very popular in the US, especially within the Cuban exiles’ communities, but they lack diversified connections in other countries, particularly neighbouring countries in Latin America. It is uncertain whether the current public figures will prevail or will be replaced by new, emerging ones.”

Cuba looks north to US farmers for help with food crisis, Michael Weissenstein, Associated Press

The eased restrictions on U.S. exports to Cuba could bring valuable farm equipment that could boost agricultural production on the island. Cuba imports 80% of what Cubans consume, and the high prices of food is a constant source of frustration for many Cubans.

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