Hardliner on the Hill: Senator Bob Menendez and US-Cuba Policy

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 10 Jun 2024

Ann Garrison | Black Agenda Report – TRANSCEND Media Service

Cuban journalist Liz Oliva Fernández tried and failed to get an interview with New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez. Screenshot from “Hardliner on the Hudson”

A Belly of the Beast documentary follows Afro-Cuban journalist Liz Oliva Fernández as she explores the Cuban American community and its relation to the long-running embargo on her country.

5 Jun 2024 – In the documentary Hardliner on the Hudson , disarming Cuban journalist Liz Oliva Fernández’s sets out on a quest to find out how New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez came to be so powerful, why he so adamantly opposes better relations with Cuba, and whether or not his constituents agree with him. “Bob Menendez,” she says, “may be the single biggest reason why the Biden Administration is still waging an economic war against my country. Some people say that Biden is letting Menendez dictate his Cuba policy in exchange for his support in a divided Senate.”

Fernández travels to Hudson County, New Jersey, where in 2022, 42.5% of residents were foreign born. This is where Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrant parents, was raised. It is, Liz notes, known as “Havana on the Hudson.” There, in a meteoric rise, Menendez became Union City’s mayor in 1986, then a state assemblyman, state senator, US congressional rep, and finally US senator by 2006.

Hardliner on the Hudson was released on May 13, the same day jury selection began in Menendez’s trial for conspiracy, obstruction of justice, bribery, acting as a foreign agent, extortion, wire fraud, and honest services fraud, federal crimes that involve the misuse of power or authority for personal gain or advantage. Specifically, Menendez is charged with receiving more than $480,000 in cash, a $60,000 Mercedes Benz convertible, mortgage payments, 11 one-ounce gold bars, two one-kilogram gold bars, and other gifts in exchange for using his position as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to benefit three New Jersey businessmen and the governments of Egypt and Qatar. “It’s straight out of The Sopranos,” says a Fox News commentator.

This is the second time Menendez has faced federal bribery charges. The first trial ended in a hung jury , and the Democrats stuck by him, but this time they’re done. He was forced to step down from his powerful position as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he’s reported to be under intense pressure to resign from the Senate. On March 21, he announced that he would not seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for his seat.

On June 3, Menendez made headlines by filing over 2500 signatures to run as an independent, but his political career is no doubt over without the support of New Jersey’s Democratic Party machine. They and other Democrats are said to be concerned that his independent run might garner enough votes to cost them the seat.

Fernández spoke to John Heinis, a journalist who covers Hudson County politics. He told her that Menendez’s first corruption trial would have been enough to end his career elsewhere, but not in New Jersey, where he describes machine politics as being just slightly more civilized than the Mafia.

Menendez, he told her, became mayor after testifying against his mentor, former mayor William Musto, who went to prison on corruption charges. “There’s no such thing as a reformer because, as the conventional wisdom says, you’re going to end up joining the machine at some point.”

Still relevant

Hardliner on the Hudson is well worth watching even though the hardliner’s time is up. It reveals much of the history of Cuban American political power shaping US policy toward the beleaguered island nation.

During the 1970s and ’80s, Cuban American terrorist groups Omega 7 and Alpa 66 waged a war against Fidel Castro from their base in Union City, where Bob Menendez was rising to power. In New York City and Hudson County, they attacked embassies, blew up businesses, and gunned down Cuban Americans believed to be doing business with the Cuban government or encouraging friendly US-Cuba relations. The CIA had trained many of them to use explosives for the Bay of Pigs invasion.

In 1979, in Union City, the terrorists killed Eulalio José Negrin , the director of a center for Cuban refugees, in a hail of gunfire. He had been an advocate for US engagement with Cuba. In 1980, in New York City, they gunned down Cuban diplomat Felix Garcia-Rodriguez , an attaché at Cuba’s UN Mission.

Drug traffickers and powerful businessmen, including Menendez’s early patron, businessman Arnaldo Monzón, funded the terrorists. Before becoming a congressman, Menendez openly supported the terrorists’ legal defense and told a reporter, “I endorse the fact that there are times when what one looks at as a law at a given time has to be broken wherever the enemy may be.”

In the film, Fernández interviews several Cuban American restaurateurs who travel to Cuba and support lifting the sanctions. One says that if he had done so during the ’70s and ’80s, his restaurants would have been burned down at the least and more likely he would have been shot. When he was 17, Alpha 66 tried to recruit him to join them in their war against Cuba. He said they were taking high speed boats to the coast of Cuba and spraying bullets at resorts. He also said that Arnaldo Monzón created Bob Menendez by holding fundraisers and making sure he climbed the political ladder. “Wealthy Cubans in this country,” he says, “donate to senators and congressman who will maintain the embargo.” As the embargo failed, he says, they became angrier and angrier and gave more and more money to politicians doing their bidding.

Given all this, it’s not hard to understand how Bob Menendez has wound up in the dock facing federal charges for bribery and related crimes for the second time.

One interesting thing that Fernández reveals about him is that he and his family don’t share personal grievances against the Cuban Revolution with his angry Cuban American funders. His parents came here in 1953, during the reign of dictator Fulgencio Batista, not after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, and he’s never been to Cuba. His father was a carpenter, his mother a seamstress.

Cuba on a Roller Coaster

As Fernandez explained in “The War on Cuba: Episode One, ” Cuba has been on a roller coaster since Barack Obama relaxed US sanctions on Cuba, then Trump tightened them again, and then Joe Biden made them even worse despite expectations that he would return to the Obama-era policy.

When Obama relaxed the sanctions, he said, “It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to push Cuba towards collapse.” This enraged the rabid Cuban American opponents to the Cuban government, but Cuba enjoyed a surge in prosperity and hope, as opportunity including tourists, cruise ships, and all the business that comes with them arrived. “Havana was overcrowded,” says Cuban designer Idania, “celebrities, musicians, everybody. It was insane.” Even the Rolling Stones came to perform.

Trump pandered to the rabid Miami Cubans who secured Florida for him in 2016, then did their bidding by restoring sanctions, and all the newfound hope and prosperity evaporated.

Trump won Florida again in 2020 and the Democrats lost several House seats. Biden then tightened the sanctions, perhaps in fear of further consequences in Florida, but also at Bob Menendez’s bidding, as Fernández suggests at the beginning of Hardliner on the Hudson.

In a report published by American University, William M. LeoGrande wrote:

In Washington, Biden had to contend with Sen. Robert Menendez, the new chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a bitter foe of the Cuban regime. At a February 2021 event sponsored by the Inspire America Foundation, an NGO that supported Trump’s regime change policy toward Cuba, Menendez joined a pantheon of conservative Florida Republicans, including Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Rick Scott, and Representative Mario Díaz-Balart, all of whom denounced Obama’s policy of engagement. The White House bent over backwards to assure Menendez’s cooperation on Biden’s foreign policy agenda by consulting him regularly on Cuba, while pro-engagement legislators found it hard to get an audience at the White House.

Biden relaxes some sanctions

During the last week of May, Biden finally relaxed a few financial sanctions on Cuba, including some restrictions on travel, use of the US banking system, and Internet-based services, but without lifting the restrictions that decimated the tourist industry revived under Obama. Biden expressed the intent to encourage the private sector, not the Cuban government, and said this was not a reversal of Trump’s regime change policy, but the government-hating Miami Cubans are apoplectic nevertheless.

It’s not yet clear how significant the relaxation of sanctions will be or whether they’re a sign of more to come, but Trump is so far ahead in the Florida polls that Biden would have to be hoping for a miracle to win there, and despite the absence of Menendez, a Trump presidency will no doubt be harsh for Cuba.

Did Biden relax sanctions because he no longer has to deal with Menendez? It’s all but impossible to believe that wasn’t a factor, though some suggest the decision may be an attempt to ease the migrant crisis. Nearly half a million Cubans have fled to the US because of the economic crisis in Cuba during the past two years.

The US has long granted special, welcoming status to Cuban migrants, as it does to other migrants from countries the US deems to be its enemies, but given the current migrant crisis and the backlash against it, is this finally too much?

Many Cuban Americans support lifting the sanctions

Liz Fernández speaks to many Cuban Americans in Hudson County and finds that most support lifting the sanctions, whether they like the Cuban government or not. Some say that the Cuban government blames everything on the sanctions, also known as the embargo, so we should see what happens if the excuse is removed. Others say that they just want to sustain a connection to their homeland, their family, and their culture. Many say that the sanctions are hurting the people, not the government. “The sanctions don’t get to the top of Cuba,” says one who opposes them. “They get to the people of Cuba. When there’s bread rations, and there’s no chicken, and there’s no toilet paper, the government is not suffering that, right? Díaz-Canal has toilet paper. It’s the people, it’s my aunt, it’s your mother who suffer.”

A young woman who teaches Cuban dance and music says that her parents are bitter towards Cuba, and would never take her there, but that she traveled there on her own and felt home, like it fulfilled a missing part of her. She says it’s time to move on from the past.

These Cuban Americans are not as vocal and visible as those who fund politicians like Bob Menendez, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, Florida Republican Representative Mario Díaz-Balart, and Florida Republican Congressman Carlos Gimenez.  Fernández’s interviews with them reveal a much more complex, empathetic, and rational Cuban American community, and the days when they would have been threatened by Omega-7 and Alpha 66 terrorists are gone.

_______________________________________________

Ann Garrison is an independent journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She attended Stanford University and is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. In 2014 she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes region. She can be reached at @AnnGarrison, ann@anngarrison.com.

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