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Why N.J. Cuban-Americans Menendez & Sires detest Obama’s Cuba policy

Why N.J. Cuban-Americans Menendez & Sires detest Obama’s Cuba policy
Jonathan D. Salant | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
on August 09, 2015 at 8:00 AM, updated August 09, 2015 at 12:54 PM

WASHINGTON — It is said that politics stops at the water’s edge. For
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez and Rep. Albio Sires, that’s where it begins.

Normally among the most loyal supporters of fellow Democratic President
Barack Obama, the two Cuban-Americans in the New Jersey congressional
delegation are among his fiercest critics of efforts to reverse 50 years
of U.S. government policy and restore relations with Cuba.

The views of Menendez, whose parents left Cuba, and Sires, who fled with
his family after Fidel Castro came to power, are colored by their own
experiences and their ongoing conversations with Cuban citizens and
exiles. Their perspective is different than most of their colleagues.

“The stakes are a lot higher for these guys,” said Roger Noriega, a
former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and
now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington
research group with a conservative bent. “You start to get outraged that
90 miles away, people are thrown in jail for questioning the
government’s policy. That gets under your skin.”

Both Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sires hold leadership positions on Capitol
Hill that command attention. Menendez is a former chairman of the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee and was its ranking member until temporarily
stepping aside in April after his indictment on federal corruption
charges. Sires is the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs
subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.

“I get the embargo was 50 years old,” said Sires (D-8th Dist.). “My hope
had always been that the embargo would be used as leverage. We didn’t
get any of that.”

Menendez — who in 2013 and 2014 supported Obama more than 98 percent of
the time, according to Congressional Quarterly — said, simply,
that Obama’s Cuba policy “stinks.” He objected to moves to improve
relations with Cuba without also addressing the return convicted
cop-killer Joanne Chesimard to the U.S. and the lack of human rights in
the communist country. He said Cuban residents and exiles seek him out
to tell stories of oppression.

“I have had the opportunity to speak to these people and get a crisp
understanding of life inside of Cuba today,” Menendez said. “It’s a
combination of having the heritage, history and language abilities.”

His constituents include people like Ricardo Miguel Montero Duque, a
commander of Brigade 2056 during the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of
Cuba in 1961 and a member of the Union of Former Political Prisoners,
based in Union City. He spent 25 years in a Cuban jail after being
captured during the U.S.-backed invasion that tried unsuccessfully to
overthrow Fidel Castro.

“Many people I’ve represented over the years spent years of their lives
in Castro’s jails simply because they peacefully sought to create
change,” Menendez said. “You hear a mother tell you that her son was
jailed simply because he was in a peaceful protest. You talk to a person
who recently got out of Cuba and now lives in the United States and
listen to their struggle where they have to stand on line for rations.”

Large majorities of Americans support renewing relations with Cuba,
according to a July 14-20 Pew Research Center poll. That survey said 73
percent of Americans approve re-establishing diplomatic relations and 72
percent favored ending the trade embargo. There were even larger
majorities among Hispanics, with 75 percent supporting diplomatic
relations and 74 percent wanting to do away with the embargo.

In the Cuban-American community, the hardliners still dominate, said
John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco, associate professor of American studies at
Ramapo College of New Jersey. The largest Cuban political action
committee, the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, opposes efforts to lift the
embargo and demands the release of all Cuban political prisoners.

“The political cache and the financial support still remains the
hardliners’ rhetoric,” Gronbeck-Tedesco said, “The financial gains to be
made still depend on a pro-embargo and anti-normalization stance.”

President Obama has tried to address the opposition among Cuban-Americans.

“There are those who want to turn back the clock, and double-down on a
policy of isolation,” Obama said July 1. “But it’s long past time for us
to realize that this approach doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked for
50 years. It shuts America out of Cuba’s future, and it only makes life
worse for the Cuban people.”

After Menendez in 2006 was named to the U.S. Senate seat to succeed new
Gov. Jon Corzine, Sires was elected to replace him in the House. The
congressional district includes Union City, with its large concentration
of Cuban Americans.

In 2013, no New Jersey House member supported Obama more than Sires did,
according to Congressional Quarterly. Not now.

“The president shouldn’t have any complaints about me,” Sires said. “But
I don’t support a bad deal and the Cuba deal is a bad deal.”

He questioned supporters of restoring relations with Cuba. For them, he
said, it’s as if time stood still and Ernest Hemingway was still
writing, drinking and entertaining in his Havana home, now a tourist site.

“There’s this mystique,” Sires said. “I don’t think these people deal
with the community like I do on a daily basis. They still think
Hemingway’s alive in Cuba.”

Jonathan D. Salant may be reached at jsalant@njadvancemedia.com. Follow
him on Twitter @JDSalant. Find NJ.com Politics on Facebook.

Source: Why N.J. Cuban-Americans Menendez & Sires detest Obama’s Cuba
policy | NJ.com –
http://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2015/08/menendez_sires_generally_support_obama_except_for.html

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