Washington - U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) today defended the $20 million in funds dedicated to promoting a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba by supporting civil society, independent journalists, and human rights activists. Last week, Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed his intent to withhold Congressional support for the only democracy assistance program for Cuba. Sen. Menendez released the following statement:

"The Obama Administration stepped up to the plate last week, endorsing funding for the only international democracy assistance program for Cubans seeking peaceful democratic change after more than 50 years of dictatorship. The democracy programs, implemented by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, recognize that change in Cuba must come from the island and that the impediment to change is the oppression and tyranny visited on the Cuban people daily by the Castro regime. The democracy program supports Cubans who seek peaceful democratic change, despite tremendous personal risk.

"Additionally, to suggest that the wrongful imprisonment of American contractor Alan Gross was provoked by U.S. assistance programs is essentially an endorsement of heavy-handed tactics by other oppressive regimes against American democracy advocates and grantees receiving U.S. democracy assistance. It also undermines the tradition of support and solidarity that our nation has provided to those seeking the same liberties and freedoms that we enjoy in the United States. Democrats in Cuba are deserving of the same support and solidarity that we provided to dissidents in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union and that we continue to send to peaceful activists in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

"I respect Chairman Kerry's right to disagree about U.S. policy toward Cuba, but firmly believe that we should be able to unite around a shared goal of supporting human rights activists, democracy activists, independent journalists and economists, and others struggling to create peaceful change in their country."

Just last week, the regime arrested at least 19 democracy activists, including Liranza Romero, President of the Cuban Youth for Democracy Movement and Boris Rodríguez Jiménez when they attempted to stand peacefully in front of the Capitol with signs reading "Freedom without Forced Exile for Cuba's Political Prisoners" and "The Streets belong to the Cuban People."