Picture: ANA file – Bob Menendez, who spearheads the brutal US sanctions regime against several sovereign nations, has been asked by top Democrats to resign after corruption charges were filed against him, the writer says.
By Calla Mairead Walsh
On Wednesday, September 27, US Democratic Senator Bob Menendez pleaded not guilty to charges of bribery, fraud and extortion in Manhattan federal court. It is not Menendez’s first indictment, but now, Menendez faces resounding calls from top Democrats to resign and not jeopardise their Senate majority in the 2024 election.
In addition to facing widespread criticism over corruption allegations, Menendez has long been criticised by pro-peace and human rights activists in the US due to his positions while serving as chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC). With regards to US policy towards Cuba, despite an opening for better relations when Donald Trump left office, Menendez used his position as chair to hold Biden’s Cuba policy hostage to the extreme anti-Cuba right.
With Menendez delegitimised, dethroned as chairperson of SFRC, and his future in the Senate uncertain, supporters of normalised relations between Cuba and the US are urging Biden to use the change in Senate leadership to end the internationally condemned US blockade against Cuba.
A smoking gun
Menendez’s indictment came exactly three months after the Sanctioner-In-Chief had three activists arrested in his office on June 22, including myself, for trying to meet with him about US policy on Cuba and specifically his zealous support for sanctions, internationally recognised as harmful to 11 million Cuban people. Instead of engaging in a conversation, his office called 25 Capitol Police to arrest us. (Our charges were dropped in July).
Menendez and his wife are now being charged with taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes — in cash, gold bars, furniture and luxury cars — to pass deals benefiting the Egyptian regime and businessmen of his home state of New Jersey.
A June 2022 search warrant turned up the bribes, including $550,000 in cash stuffed in closets, chests, and safes, even inside Senate jackets bearing Menendez’s name. Menendez has already been subject to several investigations but walked away from his 2015 indictment with no conviction and maintained his powerful position in the Senate.
This time, the smoking guns in his 39-page indictment are too big for Menendez’s colleagues, even close allies, to ignore, let alone Menendez’s constituents in the state of New Jersey. President of the Amazon Labour Union and New Jersey resident Chris Smalls said people in the state “deserve a representative free of corruption, who doesn’t contribute to human rights violations.”
Despite avoiding prior convictions, this indictment could be Menendez’s final blow, with damning physical evidence and resounding calls for his resignation from the Democratic Party. On the brink of an election year, “He is probably a large burden for too many people at the same time,” former Cuban diplomat Dr José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez tells me.
Cabañas served as the first Cuban Ambassador to the United States in 50 years and, after 37 years in the Cuban diplomatic service, now directs Cuba’s Centro de Investigaciones de Política Internacional. He participated in years of negotiations to restore US-Cuba diplomatic relations. Menendez, of course, was one of President Barack Obama’s main roadblocks to these negotiations.
Following Menendez’s indictment, different news outlets have reported that the FBI is investigating any possible involvement of Egypt’s intelligence services in the alleged bribery scheme.
A report from The Intercept suggests these were not simply financial corruption deals, but that it is possible that Menendez was trading away sensitive US information to Egypt and potentially being recruited for intelligence. “Reading the indictment,” a former CIA analyst told The Intercept, “It certainly appears like the Egyptian government was using a classic source-recruitment pattern to get Menendez and his wife to spy for them.”
Imagine how Menendez would react if another US Senator was caught, for say, spying for Cuba.
“No one in Congress has a longer or more unwavering track record than I do when it comes to condemning the Cuban regime,” Menendez proclaimed on the Senate floor in August 2021. In his 30 years in Congress, Menendez has been the architect of US sanctions regimes against Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Iraq, Iran, China, Zimbabwe, and other countries, which cut off vital medicine, food, and other goods, causing hundreds of thousands of premature deaths.
Menendez has also ferociously advocated for US military funding to the Israeli occupation of Palestine and US intervention in Iraq, Libya, Syria and now Ukraine. He pushes a neo-conservative foreign policy line in the Democratic party, opposed to the Iran nuclear deal and normalising relations with Cuba.
Menendez heavily influenced Biden’s Cuba policy as SFRC Chair, according to anonymous Biden administration officials. The former Cuban Ambassador, Cabañas, says that Menendez undermined US efforts to change Cuba policy, and senior Democrats complained about Menendez “for not following party lines during the Obama years, particularly in regards to Cuban issues”.
While Biden promised to return to Obama-era policy during his campaign, he has maintained most of Trump’s 243 additional coercive measures kept Cuba on the list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism” (SSoT).
In May 2022, Menendez decried Biden for easing restrictions on travel and the sending of remittances to Cuba. When a group of Democratic lawmakers urged Biden to lift a small number of Trump-era sanctions to slow the surge of migration at the US-Mexico Border, Menendez lambasted them.
Menendez has never stepped foot in Cuba, but consistently weaponises his Cuban-American identity to justify this deadly policy. Now he uses it to defend his cartoonish levels of corruption. Menendez claims his political enemies “simply cannot accept that a first-generation Latino American from humble beginnings could rise to be a US senator and serve with honour and distinction”, and he says he had to keep such large amounts of cash because of his family’s trauma of “facing confiscation in Cuba”.
Part of Menendez’s (until now) political success story “has been his ‘knowledge’ about Cuba and his family history, as his parents allegedly abandoned revolutionary Cuba”, explains Cabañas. In reality, he was born in New York City after his parents fled “in 1953 under Fulgencio Batista dictatorship”, which was backed by the US. Like his fellow Cuba hawk Republican Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, Menendez constantly lies that his parents fled under communism.
Ironically, while Democrats demand Menendez resign, Rubio, a Republican, has defended Menendez, saying he should get a fair trial first. Rubio and Menendez have co-authored bills to sanction China, Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.
Time for a change
The extreme position of people like Menendez and Rubio against Cuba is only representative of a vocal and well-funded minority. “The money invested against the Cuban Revolution is enough to feed and provide health for thousands of poor Americans every year,” Cabañas says, referring to the tens of millions allocated by Congress for regime change in Cuba. “The day [the US government] follows the real national interest of the country, then a different kind of policy towards Cuba will unfold.” More and more, Cuban Americans, and masses of US people, are organising to put a different policy on the table.
The largest Cuban-American solidarity organisation is Puentes de Amor, which leads car and bike caravans across the US to rally support for ending the blockade and bringing shipments of medicine to Cuba. Roberto Yis, a Miami-based organiser with Puentes de Amor, alleges that Menendez took money from the Miami extreme right and was able to “blackmail Biden because his vote in the Senate was decisive.”
Yis points to Cuba’s SSoT designation, “which is unfairly another instrument of coercion and manipulation to damage the economy of the Cuban people,” as the worst policies that Menendez’s supports against Cuba.
In June, both Yis and Chris Smalls participated in a 500-person rally outside the White House to demand Biden take Cuba off the List. At the rally, Smalls told Biden to never invite him back to the White House until he lifts the blockade. After the news about Menendez’s indictment, Smalls says, “The embargo needs to be lifted on day one of whoever takes Bob’s seat [in the Senate].” Yis says if Biden “truly has love in his heart”, he should use this moment to “remove Cuba from that unfair list”.
Menendez and the future of sanctions
When Menendez was last indicted on federal corruption charges, he stepped down as SRFC Chair on April 1, 2015. Two weeks later, Obama lifted Cuba’s SSoT designation, a major step in normalising relations. At the time, the major opposition to this move was once again Menendez and Rubio, who according to the Washington Post, “argued that Cuba’s refusal to extradite American fugitives who have resided there, in most cases for decades, constitutes support for international terrorism”.
With Menendez out of leadership, and resignation or conviction likely somewhere in his future, it begs the question, will there be a political opening for Biden to take Cuba off the list or lift any sanctions?
This would not only be welcomed by peace and human rights activists but would also be in line with reason and the positions of most of the world’s leaders. This is evident in the over 50 countries’ declarations at the UNGA and at the G77+China that Cuba chaired in Havana immediately before, the US government is facing mounting international pressure to end the blockade and take Cuba off the SSoT list.
Each year for the past 30 years, 96 percent of United Nations members have voted to condemn the blockade, and they are expected to do the same once again in November.
“This policy has isolated the United States in front of the international community,” says Cabañas. “In other words, Menendez and his pals are responsible for probably the largest fiasco in US foreign policy during the last century,” he added.
Menendez may end up in jail, but it will be for his white-collar crimes, not propping up and promoting sanctions that have taken the lives and stunted the possibility of development of Cubans, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Iranians, and Iraqis, or his support for US military interventions in Iraq, Libya, Syria and now Ukraine.
Calla Walsh is an anti-imperialist writer and organiser with the National Network on Cuba and CODEPINK.
This article was published on Peoples Dispatch