Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) assailed President Obama for his upcoming visit to Cuba during a Senate floor speech on Thursday, saying the Castro regime had failed to improve human rights and Obama was effectively legitimizing a dictatorship through his actions.
Obama will be the first sitting president in nearly a century to visit Cuba on Sunday as part of his administration's push for normalized relations. A bipartisan band of critics have blasted Obama for rewarding the Cuban regime rather than first ensuring the island was reformed.
"When we anticipate that we will see a photograph of the President of the United States laughing and shaking hands with the only dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere, I will be thinking of Berta Soler of the Ladies in White and her fellow human rights and democracy advocates, when she testified before Congress last year," Menendez said. "She said in her testimony: ‘Our demands are quite concrete; freedom for political prisoners, recognition of civil society, the elimination of criminal dispositions that penalize freedom of expression and association, and the right of the Cuban people to choose their future through free, multiparty elections.’
"Those are the words of freedom. That is the legacy we should work toward until the Cuban people are finally free."
Menendez also laid out Cuba's recent crackdown on civil rights:
In Cuba, religious freedom violations have increased. According to the London-based NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide, last year 2,000 churches were declared illegal and 100 were designated for demolition by the Castro regime. Altogether, CSW documented 2,300 separate violations of religious freedom in 2015 compared to 220 in 2014.
And, if that is not enough, Castro reneged on the release of political prisoners and visits by international monitors. Most of the 53 political prisoners released in the months prior and after Obama’s December 2014 announcement have since been re-arrested on multiple occasions. Five have been handed new long-term prison sentences.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch noted in its new 2016 report, ‘Cuba has yet to allow visits to the island by the International Committee of the Red Cross or by U.N. human rights monitors, as stipulated in the December 2014 agreement with the United States.’ These were the conditions that prompted Congress, over the course of our long history with Cuba, to pass successive laws to build on — not detract from — Executive Orders that created the embargo.
I stand with thousands of Cuba’s civil society leaders, dissidents, journalists, and everyday men and women who long for the day when the freedom we enjoy in our great country extends to theirs. As long as I have a voice, they will have an ally to speak truth to power against this dictatorship, and against any effort to legitimize it or reward it.
We must realize the nature of the Castro regime won’t be altered by capitulating on our demands for basic human and civil rights. If the United States is to give away its leverage, it should be in exchange for one thing, and one thing only, a true transition in Cuba.
The full text of Menendez's speech can be found here.