Rep. Ron DeSantis (R., Fla.) is calling on President Donald Trump to impose more severe economic sanctions against the Cuban government and to indict Raul Castro, the island nation's former president who remains the top leader of Cuba's Communist Party.
DeSantis, who chairs the House Oversight Committee's national security panel, this week expressed deep concern about the Cuban government's record of oppressing its people, murdering Americans, and working with some of the world's worst actors, including Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, to undermine U.S. interests.
During a Wednesday hearing, DeSantis decried the Obama administration's decision to release three men convicted for their roles in connection with the illegal shoot down in 1996 of two American civilian aircraft that killed three Americans and a U.S. legal resident.
Instead of releasing the men responsible to return to Cuba to receive "a hero's welcome," the U.S. government should be calling for more accountability from Cuba for the murder of the Americans, not less.
"Why not indict Raul Castro for his role?" DeSantis asked. "I think that if the Trump administration moved forward with a series of indictments that would send a very strong signal that it does mean business and it will take care of some of these issues that have been lingering for a long time."
DeSantis joined Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), and Florida GOP Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in urging Trump to direct the Justice Department to indict Raul Castro for allegedly ordering the shoot down. Rubio and Diaz-Balart sent a letter to Trump in late May calling for the action.
Ros-Lehtinen questioned why Castro was not indicted for his role in the shoot-down long ago.
"All Cuban regime operatives have been indicted in our U.S. courts for their roles, but sadly they have not been held accountable," she said. "And the accountability doesn't just stop with them. This was an orchestrated attack … and that means Raul Castro himself is responsible."
The Wednesday hearing of the House Oversight subcommittee featured testimony from Miriam de la Pena, the mother of one of the murdered Brothers to the Rescue pilots, as well as Ana Alejandre Ciereszko, the sister of one of the pilots.
Both women said their families felt that the Clinton administration had a very weak response when the shoot down of the planes first occurred and were deeply troubled when President Obama released Gerardo Hernandez, who was serving time in U.S. federal prison for his role in the murders.
De la Pena recalled that just four years after the downing of the planes and the murders of their relatives, at the end of the Clinton administration, President Clinton shook Fidel Castro's hand at a United Nations reception in New York.
"I remember hearing that Clinton met with Raul Castro and shook hands with him and expressed how happy he was," she recalled. "The guy who gave the order to murder American citizens, and you're very happy to hold his hand. It's been one disappointment after another."
Obama's decision to travel to Cuba, hold a press conference with Raul Castro and attend a baseball game was even more offensive, the pair of relatives testified.
DeSantis praised President Trump for rolling back some of the looser travel and commerce rules that Obama put in place during his détente with Havana.
He also said he agreed with the administration's decision to dramatically draw down the number of U.S. diplomats at the new embassy in Havana and kick Cuban personnel out of the United States after an investigation into debilitating sonic attacks on more than two dozen U.S. workers in Havana made little progress in determining how and why they occurred.
The State Department on Thursday acknowledged that U.S. doctors had confirmed that one more U.S. worker had experienced the health attacks in Cuba and another was still undergoing a medical assessment.
Despite positive moves from the Trump administration, DeSantis expressed deep concern that the "paper-pusher bureaucrats at the State Department—are purposefully disregarding and deliberately undermining President Trump's Cuba policies.
"I'm afraid what we're seeing is the final gasp of the Obama holdovers attempting to normalize relations," he said, pledging to "vigorously pursue the corrupt bureaucrats who obstruct [the president's policies] and enable this vicious regime."
Roger Noriega, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States and is now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said the shootdown is a vivid example of the Cuban government's international criminal enterprise that he argued will continue until the international community recognizes and confronts it.
Noriega called out the Castros for "micromanaging" Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro's rise to power and their continued control over his corrupt regime. He urged the Trump administration to treat Cuban government officials "as the international criminals they are" and to break diplomatic relations with the regime in Havana.
"We should gather the evidence to identify Cubans who are involved in narco-trafficking, human rights violations and other crimes and indict them in U.S. courts of law," he said.
Jason Poblete, a lawyer and Cuba expert, rattled off a long list of former heads of State and other foreign officials that the U.S. has held to account for human rights abuses, drug-trafficking and racketeering, including Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, and Chile's Augusto Pinochet.
The Castros have not been held to the same standard, he said.
The Brother for the Rescue shoot down and the recent sonic attacks against U.S. diplomats, Poblete said, are a reminder that officials "atop Cuba's Communist system are not responsible stakeholders, but rather, international outlaws."
Deciding to take a firm stand against Cuba again, after Obama's rapprochement, requires a strong political will from the Trump administration.
"Right now, what we really need is the political will," he said. "If we keep this curious ambivalence, nothing will change. Republicans and Democrats haven't wanted to deal with this issue, but we must deal with this issue. American interests are being undermined."