By David Cruz
Coming just a day after the announcement of the resumption of commercial flights between Cuba and the U.S., official word today that President Obama would make a historic visit to the island next month.
Reaction from the highest ranking Cuban-American elected official in the country — and political thorn in Obama’s side — was swift and predictable. Before a dramatic wall of pictures of former Cuban political prisoners, Sen. Bob Menendez blasted the Obama administration for today’s announcement.
“It is totally unacceptable for the president of the United States to reward a dictatorial regime with a historic visit when human rights abuses endure and democracy continues to be shunned,” he said at an afternoon press conference.
Despite the administration’s warm overtures to the Caribbean island, the rhetoric from inside the Union of Cuban Ex-Political Prisoners seemed to come directly from the Cold War era.
“Cuba has been removed from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list and an embassy has been opened,” he added. “However, since these sweeping changes started in December of 2014, Cubans have been beaten, arrested, repressed at higher rates than ever before.”
Rather than empowering the people of Cuba, Menendez says Obama’s visit and his policy shift will do more to enrich and further entrench the Castro regime. Asked if he would join the president, he said, “No. I’m not going to be a party to everything I just suggested is wrong with the trip. You know, if you’re not going to really push for Joanne Chesimard and the other 50 or so wanted fugitives and cop killers, I’m not going to be a party to that. If you’re not going to really meet with the leading human rights activists, political dissidents and independent journalists, I’m not going to be a party to that.”
Around here, where Cuban exiles and former political prisoners still live, the memories of the Castro regime and its jailing (and worse) of dissenters still evokes fire. Eighty-two-year-old Guillermo Estevez says he was in a Cuban jail for 19 years in the ’60s and ’70s.
“That kind of regime? Ninety miles from the United States? It is unconscionable,” he snapped. “So many years! Everything that President Obama, and the group with Obama, said about Cuba is wrong. It’s very wrong. They’re going to fool him. They’re going to fool everybody.”
The president’s trip is set for March 21 and 22. No word on who — other than the first lady — is expected to join him. It’s clear, though, that Menendez will not be one of them.