Monday, July 19, 2010

Bob on Travel to Cuba

If you ask me, the main reason Obama is so hesitant to come out clearly in favor of ending the travel ban for U.S. citizens going to Cuba is Bob Menendez, Democratic Senator from New Jeresey.

We all know from the votes on Health Care and Fanancial Reform legislation (60-39 on both I think) that Obama can spare no votes in the Senate on his major domestic legislative initiatives.

On top of that, Menendez is key in the effort to raise money to (re-)elect Democratic Senatorial candidates and incumbents this coming fall.

While I disagree with most of Menendez's arguments below (except for his point about the deportations - emigration should NOT be a condition for release), understanding his point of view is important, given his own position in the Democratic party.

Menendez mentions Farinas' hunger strike in his statement, but says nothing about Farinas' own recent statement in favor of an end to the travel ban.

He also repeatedly declares that NOTHING has changed in Cuba as a result of the turn toward international tourism during the past 15-20 years. But, anyone familiar with Cuban daily life during this period (and Menendez is not one of them as he has not been to Cuba in a long time) can attest to MAJOR transformations within the island and within the regime since 1990, without a corresponding change of the system itself or the regime's will to power.

U.S. policy toward Cuba is a question of blind, emotional idealism (represented by Menendez's argument) vs. principled realism (evident in the recent statement in support of an end to the travel ban by 75 of Cuba's leading dissidents).

Here is his argument AGAINST ending the travel ban shared recently on the floor of the U.S. Senate:

Senator Menendez on Cuba Sanctions - July 15, 2010
U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) spoke on the floor today in strong opposition of lifting tourism travel restrictions to Cuba
Mr. President, I have come to the floor many times to speak out about Cuba, and today I come to the floor once again -- this time in strong opposition to any attempt in this Chamber to pass any bill that in any way lifts or lessens the travel ban on Cuba -- any bill that eases regulations on the sale of U.S. products to the island.

I want to make it absolutely clear that I will oppose – and filibuster if need be -- any effort to ease regulations that stand to enrich a regime that denies its own people basic human rights.

Mr. President, I do not wish to obstruct the business of this Chamber, but I know my colleagues on both sides of the aisle are well aware of how deeply I feel about freeing the people of Cuba from the repressive regime under which they have suffered for too long.

The fact is the big corporate interests behind this misguided attempt to weaken the travel ban could not care less whether the Cuban people are free. They care only about opening a new market and increasing their bottom line.

This is about the color of money, not the desire for freedom.

The very fact that a travel bill has moved through the House Agriculture Committee makes one wonder why American agricultural interests would even care about travel to Cuba.

One can only assume it’s about generating increased tourism dollars for the Castro regime to buy more agricultural products.

That will serve only to enrich the regime and do absolutely nothing to bring democracy to the island.

Let’s be clear, those who believe that increasing travel will magically breed democracy in Cuba are simply dead wrong.

For years, the world has been traveling to Cuba and nothing has changed.

Millions of tourists from democratic nations have visited Havana and the Castro regime has not loosened its iron grip on its people…

…it has not ended its repressive policies…

…and it has not stopped imprisoning and brutally abusing pro-democracy forces.

Those who lament our dependence on foreign oil because it enriches regimes in terrorist states like Iran, should not have a double standard when it comes to enriching a brutal dictatorship like Cuba right here in our own backyard.

Prisoner Release in Context
How coincidental that suddenly, now that Congress is considering lifting a travel ban, the Castro regime is hoping the world will believe that it will release 52 prisoners of conscience.

Let’s set the record straight.

Many people are wrongly under the impression – reading and watching media reports – that the 52 prisoners have already been released and are free in Cuba.

The fact is only 7 have been released and forcibly deported from their country – another human rights violation – instead of allowing them to stay and peacefully advocate for change.

The remaining 47 prisoners are set to be released but not now, not tomorrow, not next week, not next month, but sometime during the next 3 to 4 months – or so the regime says.

According to reports in The Miami Herald, 9 of them have said they will refuse to leave for Spain if released, and the 7 who arrived in Madrid have vowed to continue their activism in exile.

They have told reporters they feel the shock of being forced to leave their country.

Omar Rodriguez Saludes told a reporter he feels “like I was still in prison. I left behind part of my family. I still feel like I have the cuffs on my hands.”

The released men said conditions in the prison were horrendous. They shared their cells with rats.

Diseases infested the prison, they said – and told of inmates trying to kill themselves or do themselves harm because of the squalid prison conditions they were forced to endure.

Julion Cesar Galvez, one of the dissidents told reporters: “the hygiene and health conditions in prisons in Cuba are not terrible – they’re worse than terrible. We had to live with rats and cockroaches and excrement. It’s not a lie.”

Galvez, a 66 year old journalist who was sentenced to 15 years in these horrible prisons said: “There were outbreaks of dengue fever and tuberculosis.”

He said there were more than 1,500 prisoners in the prison in Villa Clara – 40 prisoners to a cell measuring 32 square feet.

Another prisoner, Norman Hernandez said, “The prisoners are tired of demanding their rights…” They lose all hope. They lose their desire to live and the try to hurt themselves so they will get attended to.

These men were lucky to be released, but they will not give up. They will tell their stories and they will continue to fight for freedom for all Cubans.

Mr. President, it took the regime only one night in March to arrest these 52 people. So we might ask ourselves: Why will it take 4 months to release all of them?

It’s not a coincidence that during the next 3 or 4 months there will be members of this Chamber and members in the other body who will be looking to provide the Castro regime with billions of dollars of added tourism revenue.

It’s not a coincidence that in September the EU will once again deliberate the wisdom of its remaining sanctions.

The nagging question that lingers in my mind is: Will the 47 ever see the light of day or will they be forcibly deported from their country and another 52 arrested overnight to take their place?

It’s possible the regime will never release them, because they don’t want the world to see them because of the torture they’ve been subjected to.

Last month, a man named Ariel Sigler was released from a Cuban prison on the verge of death -- a 100 pound paraplegic who was arrested in 2003 as a 250 pound amateur boxer.

Also last month, the regime – once again – refused to let the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Torture visit the island which, in my view, speaks volumes about the condition of the thousands of Cubans who have been imprisoned for “dangerousness” and other trumped-up political charges.

If that is what’s happening to the 200 internationally recognized and known political prisoners, then how much worse must it be for the thousands of anonymous political prisoners who have not been reported?

According to the State Department, “the total number of detainees is unknown because the government does not disclose such information and keeps its prisons off-limits to human rights organizations and international human rights monitors.”

According to the State Department, “One human rights organization lists more than 200 political prisoners currently detained in Cuba in addition to as many as 5,000 people sentenced for ‘dangerousness.’”

Yet, in the face of this repression, some Members want to provide with its number one source of income – tourism.

Mr. President, this is not about travel.

This is about rewarding a repressive regime.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans travel to Cuba for family, educational, or humanitarian reasons.

Tourism to Cuba is a natural resource, akin to providing refined petroleum products to Iran.

It’s reported that 2.5 million tourists visit Cuba – 1.5 million from North America... 1 million Canadians… More than 170,000 from England… More than 400,000 from Spain, Italy, Germany, and France combined – All bringing in $1.9 billion in revenue to the Castro regime – that’s 765 convertible pesos per tourist.

And yet nothing has changed in Cuba except the amount of tourism dollars the regime has at its disposal…

…and while the money still comes in, he still rations food keeping Cubans waiting in long lines for a subsistence meal.

That’s an irreversible concession to a regime that, this week, arrested a Cuban-American for providing laser printers and ink cartridges to a rural woman’s opposition movement in Santiago.

He was interrogated, the head of the movement’s home raided by a dozen state security agents, the printer and cartridges confiscated.

He was subsequently released and put on a plane back.

Meanwhile an American remains imprisoned for helping the island’s Jewish community connect to the Internet – after six months in jail -- still no trial or charges.

They were looking to help the Cuban people, but the regime doesn’t want anyone helping. They want tourists to provide only one thing – hard currency.

Ladies in White – Zapata - Farinas
Visiting the beaches of Varadero and sipping a Cuba Libre – an oxymoron – provides money to continue repression but won’t let the Cuban people sip the sweetness of freedom.

It won’t change the plight of the Ladies in White – mothers and sisters who – every week – march for freedom carrying white gladiolas who are beaten and repressed.

It won’t change their fate of being imprisoned by the regime, released – only to be re-arrested over and over again.

It won’t change the tragic fate of Orlando Zapata Tamayo– deemed a prisoner of conscience Amnesty International -- who died in February after being on a hunger strike for 85 days protesting horrific prison conditions.

It won’t end the desire for freedom or change conditions in Cuba for men like Guillermo Farinas who began his hunger strike after the death of Zapata, ending it after he heard of the prisoner release, but vowing that he and other courageous Cubans would join together in yet another hunger strike if the 52 prisoners are not released and back in their own homes by November 7th.

Lifting the travel ban, allowing tourist dollars to flow to the regime will not end any of it. It will not free the people of Cuba.

It will not change the fate of the Women in White or the desire for freedom of Guillermo Farinas.

It will only enrich the regime.

Reports this week have pointed out the economic impact opening travel to Cuba will cause to the Gulf states, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and our democratic neighbors in the Caribbean.

The dollars that will be transferred from those tourism economies should be for the benefit of a democratic government in a free Cuba – not to bailout the brutal Cuban regime.

The Castros don’t deserve it and the U.S. Gulf states and our Caribbean friends can’t afford it.

According to the Jamaica Daily Gleaner – “The results of various studies of the likely impact on the Caribbean of the lifting of the US travel ban suggest that Cuba’s tourism arrival would surge to full capacity at the expense of other Caribbean destinations…

“…Apart from Puerto Rico and The U.S. Virgin Islands, the most heavily dependent Caribbean destinations on the U.S. and the most vulnerable should the legislation to lift the travel pass include The Bahamas, The Cayman Islands, Cancun, Bermuda, Jamaica, and Belize.”

It seems to me, Mr. President, we should be promoting tourism to the beaches along the Gulf Coast -- not to the apartheid beaches of Castro’s Cuba.

Conclusion – Against All Hope
Allowing the regime to benefit from increased tourism will not change a thing in Cuba.

It will not bring democracy to Cuba.

It will not make conditions for the Cuban people any better or change the history of brutality of the Castro regime – a brutality that continues to this day.

We would do well to recall the words of Armando Valladeres, who wrote the prize-winning book Against All Hope.

He was imprisoned in the infamous Isla de Pinos in 1960 for his opposition to communism.

He lived through the hell of Castro’s jail, suffering violence, forced labor, and solitary confinement.

His writings were smuggled out, read throughout the world, and he was finally released after intense international pressure, twenty-two years after he was taken prisoner.

Here are some of his memories of captivity at the hands of Castro:
“I recalled the two sergeants, Porfirio and Matanzas, plunging their bayonets into Ernesto Diaz Madruga’s body…. Boitel, denied water, after more than fifty days on a hunger strike, because Castro wanted him dead; Clara, Boitel’s poor mother, beaten by Lieutenant Abad in a Political Police station just because she wanted to find out where her son was buried…. Officers… threatened family members if they cried at a funeral.

“I remember Estebita and Piri dying in blackout cells, the victims of biological experimentation… So many others murdered in the forced-labor fields, quarries and camps. A legion of specters, naked, crippled, hobbling and crawling through my mind, and the hundreds of men mutilated in the horrifying searches.

“Eduardo Capote’s fingers chopped off by a machete. Concentration camps, tortures, women beaten…

And in the midst of that apocalyptic vision of the most dreadful and horrifying moments in my life, in the midst of the gray, ashy dust and the orgy of beatings and blood, prisoners beaten to the ground, a man emerged…

“…the skeletal figure of a man wasted by hunger with white hair, blazing blue eyes, and a heart overflowing with love, raising his arms to the invisible heaven and pleading for mercy for his executioners.

“‘Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.’ And a burst of machine-gun fire ripping open his chest.”

Let us remember these memories of Armando Valladeres before we think about rewarding the Cuban regime in any way.

Their sins are too great and they are not a thing of the past. The brutality and repression have been going on since 1959…

…It has never stopped. It has never gotten better. It has never changed, and it never will until Cuba is free.

When I hear my colleagues come to the floor and talk about lifting the travel ban, I’m compelled to ask: why is there such an obvious double standard when it comes to Cuba?

Why are the gulags of Cuba so different from the gulags of the old Soviet Union?

Why are we willing to tighten sanctions against Iran but loosen them when it comes to an equally repressive regime in Cuba – in effect rewarding them?

When it comes to Cuba, why are we so willing to throw up our hands and say: it’s time to forget?

Mr. President, it is not time to forget. We can never forget those who have suffered and died at the hands of dictators – whether in Iran, Cuba, or anywhere.

It is clear the repression in Cuba continues unabated, notwithstanding the embargo, notwithstanding calls by those who want us to ease travel restrictions, ease sanctions – notwithstanding calls to step back and – in affect – let bygones be bygones.…

In good conscience, I cannot do that. I cannot and will not step back.

As I said at the outset, I will come to this floor and oppose any attempt in this Chamber to pass any bill that in any way lifts or lessens the travel ban on Cuba -- any bill that eases regulations on the sale of U.S. agricultural products to the island.

As long as I have a voice I will speak out in opposition to any such legislation.

As long as I have a voice I will speak out against the Castro regime until Cuba is free.

Thank you, Mr. President, and with that I yield.

1 comment:

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