Sen. Bob Menendez, Marco Rubio Grills US State Department on Renewed Cuban Relations

Sen. Marco Rubio conducted his first Senate Foreign Relations Western Hemisphere Subcommittee hearing this week and focused heavily and critically on the renewed diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S.

Rubio, who serves as chairman of the subcommittee, questioned U.S. Department of State’s Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson on normalized relations and human rights issues in Cuba. Jacobson defended the Obama administration’s new stance on Cuba, but reassured the U.S. is still monitoring the issues affecting the island.

“This administration is under no illusions about the continued barriers to internationally recognized freedoms that remain for the Cuban people, nor are we under illusions about the nature of the Cuban government,” said Jacobson. “When we sat down with our counterparts in Havana, we were clear that our governments have both shared interests and sharp differences.”

As Latin Post reported, Jacobson became the highest-level U.S. diplomat to visit Cuba in 38 years during a visit in late January. The U.S. delegation during the Cuba trip sought to reestablish its U.S. Embassy in Havana while accrediting U.S. diplomats and granting access to travel the island. According to a U.S. State Department official, U.S. officials are hoping Cuba will lift travel restrictions, remove the caps on the number of U.S. diplomatic personnel on the island and ease the flow of shipment for the diplomats.

Rubio’s hearing also included testimony from Cuban human rights groups and U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski.

The “Understanding the Impact of U.S. Policy Changes on Human Rights and Democracy in Cuba” hearing was not solely an effort by the Republican lawmakers to question the normalized relations. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., also spoke about concerns for Cubans during the normalized relations process. Menendez, who serves as a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba “produced a bad deal – bad for the Cuban people.”

“While it may have been done with the best of intentions, in my view, we’ve compromised bedrock principles for minimal concessions,” said Menendez, noting many political prisoners remain in Cuba and they “have zero guarantees” for any basic freedoms.

“I’m concerned that there was not one substantial step toward transparent democratic elections, improved human rights, freedom of assembly, or the ability to form independent political parties and independent trade unions,” Menendez said during his opening remarks. “Ironically, just two weeks after the announcement, the regime arrested more than 50 people who tried to speak about the future of their country.”

According to Malinowski, promoting universal human rights and empowerment for Cubans “must be the bedrock” to the U.S. policy toward Cuba. He added, “President Obama has made clear that it will be. And here, we will take our cues from the Cuban people, supporting their vision for Cuba’s future.”

Malinowski did note the Cuban repression, poverty and isolation is not the fault of the U.S. or the current embargo on the island. He said the responsibility is on the Cuban government.

Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced efforts to renew diplomatic relations on Dec. 17. Since the announcement, the U.S. Department of Commerce and Treasury Department have amended regulations on travel and shipments to Cuba.

–Courtesy of Latin Post

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