WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, delivered the following opening statement at a hearing this morning titled “Attacks on U.S. Diplomats in Cuba: Response and Oversight.”
Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:
“I am pleased that we are starting the New Year with a much-needed hearing on the brazen attacks of our diplomats in Cuba. It is unfortunate that since the news of these bizarre and vicious attacks broke late last summer, we have not seen more public outcry against the Cuban government – for whatever scope of ownership it has over these attacks– or more accountability for the health and well-being of our diplomats, some of whom continue to suffer lingering health conditions from these attacks.
“The Castro regime has proved time and again it is not a responsible actor in the community of nations. The Castro regime cannot be counted upon to uphold its international commitments or responsibilities. And most certainly, the Castro regime has no regard for individual human rights, security, or dignity.
“Since seizing power, the Castros and their network of enforcers in the Cuban intelligence and military services have shown the world exactly what they stand for and who they are. At all costs, they will cling to a failed ideology that has served to enrich them at the expense of their people and at the expense of security in the region.
“For decades, the United States had the sensible policy to isolate this insidious regime and prevent cash from lining their pockets. While some cheered a change in this policy a little more than three years ago, I was deeply skeptical to say the least. And time has proved this skepticism was warranted.
“Cuba has not changed. The recent municipal ‘elections’ in Cuba, where hundreds of candidates were barred from even participating, reflects the true nature of Cuba’s ‘reform’ – a sham process that mocks democracy. Surprising nobody, Cuba also just announced that it will extend Raul Castro’s presidential term after February of this year – showing yet again the failed promises of democratic reform. His likely hand-picked successor has threatened to maintain a repressive legacy.
“The Cuban government may not, at the end of the day, be directly responsible for attacking our diplomats. But as someone who has personally witnessed the modus operandi of the Cuban government, it is unfathomable that the Castro regime – and the intelligence services specifically – were not aware of these attacks. If senior Cuban officials did not directly order these attacks, they must have been aware of or given tacit approval to foreign agents to operate in Cuba. The scope of the attacks is too specific.
“I hope to hear more sound explanations from our witnesses today. Now, our own diplomats have borne the heavy burden of the simple, unchangeable truth: the Castro regime cannot and must not be trusted, and is not a capable or willing actor in the community of nations. No amount of placating, pandering or diplomatic overtures will change that.
“The Cuban government has tried to undermine their dangerous and irresponsible behavior by undermining the validity of the claims of our diplomats. Why would a regime that has demonstrated its ability to intimidate, oppress, and harm its own citizens give credence to our concerns about the well-being of Americans?
“They accuse the United States of fabricating the attacks because we have not released the names or diagnoses of the affected people. Of course the Castro regime does not fundamentally understand that in a democratic and free country, citizens have a right to privacy, and to a government that would prioritize their privacy and health over using them as political tools.
“Turning to our witnesses, you cannot be held accountable for the atrocious behavior of the Cuban government. But you are responsible both for the appropriate diplomatic response and the health and safety of our diplomats. And the actions the Department has taken on both counts are simply insufficient and unacceptable.
“Despite much vaunted rhetoric from the President about rolling back ill-conceived Obama-era policy changes, the reality is that the Cuban government will continue to enjoy many of the benefits it received. While the Administration may champion its new regulations prohibiting transactions that could benefit the Cuban government-military-intelligence complex, it grandfathered in all contracts that began during the last Administration. Furthermore, because the Administration took so long to actually announce these guidelines, major companies were able to finalize deals in the months between the Administration’s announcement of these policies and their implementation.
“At the enforcement level, the Office of Foreign Asset Control remains understaffed, with no indication that more personnel will be hired. At the State Department, the President has not even nominated an Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Failing to put critical, senior staff in place at the appropriate agencies severely undermines the United States’ ability to project our interests and to protect our citizens abroad.
“Accordingly, the Administration and the Department’s reaction to the Cuban government completely abrogating its obligations under the Vienna Convention to protect our diplomats is laughable. The fact that somehow the Cuban government has managed to paint a narrative that there were no attacks at all is outrageous.
“Expelling a handful of diplomats to achieve parity with the number of diplomats who had to be removed from Havana for safety is hardly a bold diplomatic move. When new Treasury guidelines were finally announced, the Administration stressed that they were NOT in response to the attack on our personnel.
“Turning to the impacted foreign service officers themselves, I appreciate the overview you’ve provided, but the truth is, from the accounts we have heard, the Department’s response was simply bureaucratic, inadequate, and troubling.
“I will have a number of questions later, but let me start by saying the stories we have heard are shocking. The failure of leadership at the Department and at Post, the sluggish reaction to the initial reports of affected personnel, the aloof response of the medical team at the State Department, and silence from Diplomatic Security to the rest of the Department are simply staggering.
“The members of the U.S. Foreign Service have made a commitment to serving their country overseas. They agree to spend their lives – often taking their families with them – in pursuit of promoting American interests and helping Americans abroad. They serve in combat zones, large embassies and small, and sometimes on Communists islands.
“According to accounts from those who suffered directly, when diplomats first reported symptoms to the appropriate people at Post, they were rebuffed. It is also our understanding that upon finally accepting that employees were suffering life-altering health consequences, the Department took months to arrange for the appropriate care. It was almost a year before the Department put the Embassy on ordered departure status – and only after reports surfaced in the media. Alarmingly, it is our understanding that the Department did not even warn diplomats going to Cuba for permanent or temporary assignments about the risk to their health and the health of their families.
“As their colleagues were evacuated from Cuba, Department leadership failed to inform the rest of the Department – including those being sent to serve in the place of those being evacuated.
“Those who have been suffering physically also have remaining questions about whether they will receive appropriate care for the rest of their careers and the rest of their lives.
“This lack of leadership and responsibility is shocking and unacceptable.
“I sincerely hope this panel can provide us some much-needed answers to myriad pressing questions. The Cuban government must be held accountable for its failure to uphold international commitments and its failure to protect American diplomats. The Department must be held accountable for executing the appropriate policies in response, and for ensuring the safety, security, and health of the men and women of the Foreign Service.”