Is This the Moment to Normalize US Relations With Cuba?
With Senator Foreign Relations chairman and Cuba hawk Robert Menendez
mired in scandal, the embargo could finally be lifted.
Tom Hayden April 16, 2014
Until last week, New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, chairman
of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was relatively untouchable
among Democrats, while holding virtual veto power over US Cuba policy
and being a military hawk on US policies towards Syria, Iran and Venezuela.
Not any more.
Now Menendez’s grip is weakened by revelations that his very close
friend, Miami opthalmologist Saloman Melgen, topped the country in
Medicare fraud, and funneled $700,000 in campaign contributions through
a Democratic super-PAC, nearly all of which were channeled right back to
the Menendez re-election campaign in 2012. Melgen ripped off $21 million
in Medicare reimbursements that year alone by over-prescribing a
medication for vision loss among seniors.
A key question is whether Senate leader Harry Reid, whose close former
aides run the Majority PAC for Senate Democrats, will aggressively
investigate ethics violations, diminish Menendez’s Senate standing, or
risk his party‘s association with the scandal by circling the wagons.
Federal investigations, including two raids on Dr. Melgen’s clinics,
already have revealed that Menendez interceded with Medicare officials
on his friend’s behalf in 2009 and 2011. Menendez is still under
scrutiny by the Obama Justice Department. Menendez acknowledges
traveling several times on Melgen’s private jet and staying at the eye
doctor’s posh estate in the Dominican Republic. Menendez was forced to
reimburse $58,500 for the costs of those trips when the information was
disclosed in 2010.
The important back story in the Menendez-Melger case is that US Cuba
policy is at stake.
The Cuban-born Menendez is a fierce lifetime opponent of any easing of
tensions with Havana. As a top fund-raiser and the Democratic chairman
of the key foreign relations committee, Menendez is an obstacle to Obama
and Senate liberals on a range of national security policies. He favors
regime change through military or covert means in Syria, Iran,
Venezuela, and of course Cuba. He has the power to set bills, hold
hearings, and approve or deny administration nominations. Menendez is
becoming Obama’s chief domestic obstacle in normalizing relations with
Cuba. Even on an administration priority like immigration reform,
Menendez (and Senator Marco Rubio) have pledged their votes only on the
condition that their hardline position on Cuba is heeded.
Now that Menendez’s grip on power is weakened, the only question is by
Only a few years ago Menendez, chairing the Senate Democrats’ campaign
committee, raised hell when one of the party’s biggest fund-raisers,
Hollywood’s Andy Spahn, tried raising funds for candidates who supported
a new Cuba policy. Spahn, who travels often to Cuba with American
politicians and Hollywood producers like Steven Spielberg, was demonized
by Menendez and shut down. But Spahn today remains as one of Obama’s top
fund-raisers, and actively supports lifting the embargo.
This year an even sharper split erupted in the Senate between Menendez
and Senator Patrick Leahy who is making a top priority of achieving a
new Cuban policy. Leahy, who engages in steady, behind-the-scenes
dialogue with Cuban officials, obtained sixty-six Senate signatures on a
December 2013 letter to Obama calling on the president to “act
expeditiously to take whatever steps are in the national interest” to
obtain the release of American citizen Alan Gross. Gross is a contractor
for the US Agency for International Development serving a fifteen-year
sentence in Cuba for covertly smuggling high-tech communications
equipment into the island. A rival letter sent by Menendez and Rubio
calling for Gross’ “immediate and unconditional release” garnered only
fourteen votes, an embarrassing setback for Menendez. In the opaque
culture of Washington, the Leahy letter was interpreted as political
cover for Obama to negotiate diplomatically for Gross’ release, whereas
the Menendez letter was a dud.
The Leahy-Menendez feud has deepened further with recent revelations
that the AID has operated a secret Twitter program to stir protests in
Cuba. Leahy denounces the project as “dumb, dumb, dumb” while Menendez
defends it vigorously.
National Democrats interested in Cuba commonly claim their hands are
tied on Cuba because of Menendez’s role. Under the 1997 Helms-Burton
legislation, President Bill Clinton delegated to Congress the final say
over recognizing Cuba and lifting the embargo, providing the most
powerful tool in Menendez’s arsenal until now. For that reason, Obama
has pursued gradual progress with Cuba through executive action—like
lifting license requirements for travel by Cuban-Americans, which has
resulted in a flow of about 500,000 Cuban Americans per year. Obama also
is conducting business-like talks with the Cuban regime on immigration,
drug enforcement and other state-to-state matters. Obama shook hands
with President Raul Castro at the funeral of Nelson Mandela, angering
the Cuban Right.
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Any ebbing of Menendez’s role will help Obama to take further steps
towards normalization. For example, the State Department is considering
lifting its designation of Cuba as a “terrorist state.” Such a move
would make it much easier for the Cuban government to engage with
private banks and firms who now worry about breaching US anti-terrorism
laws. While lifting the terrorist label is within the administration’s
power, the decision can be challenged by two-thirds of the Senate. With
a weakened Menendez, the Senate might go along with Obama and John Kerry.
The surfacing of the Medicare scandal, Melgen’s donations to Menendez,
and the links between that money and the Senate’s Majority PAC now
increase the pressure on Senator Reid and Democrats to distance
themselves from Menendez. For Democratic insiders, managing the scandal
is a dicey matter, because losing the Senate in November will turn Cuba
policy over to the exiles’ latest favorite son, Senator Marco Rubio.
If Democrats are uncomfortable about a nasty fight with one of their
own, who will step up? Menendez is not up for election this November.
Republicans who agree with his right-wing foreign policies may like him
where he is. Where are New Jersey Democrats? For many years the liberal
focus against the Cuban Right has centered on Miami, not so much on the
enclave of right-wing Cubans in Jersey City. The recent liberal
obsession about New Jersey has been about Republican governor Chris
Christie, not Democratic senator Menendez. The uproar over Christie,
while fully justifiable, is easier politically than Democrats taking on
a leader of their own party. But while causing traffic jams on an
interstate bridge is an outrage, how does it compare with a lone Senator
flaunting his own president, fomenting US military interventions, and
sabotaging a possible bridge to Cuba? Time will tell.
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