On Monday, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the U.S. House Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee and one of the leading congressional Republicans on foreign polick, took to the House floor to weigh in on President Barack Obama’s trip to Cuba. Her remarks were as follows:
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. When President Obama announced his efforts to normalize relations with Cuba in December 2014, many of us believed that his decision would only embolden the regime and end up hurting the Cuban people. Well, almost a year and half later, we can say – unfortunately, as expected – that our suspicions have been warranted. This is indeed what has happened. President Obama is only worried about legacy shopping and is willing to ignore the plight of the Cuban people who continue to suffer under Castro, and this normalization effort has been an abject failure for freedom and democracy on the island. The lives of the Cuban people have not improved. A record number of them are fleeing the island to escape Castro’s tyranny. And freedom and liberty, unfortunately, are no longer seen to be the goals of this administration for the people of Cuba.
In December 2015, President Obama said in an interview that he would go to Cuba only when human rights and the situation on the island of human rights had improved. Well, Mr. Speaker, this is what human rights looks like on the island, the valiant Ladies in White who walk peacefully in Cuba to their church. And you see one being dragged away on the lower corner. And this is what happens to them every week in Castro’s Cuba. They are harassed, they are beaten. This is not what an improved human rights situation looks like at all, Mr. President. Hours before the president arrived in Cuba, hundreds of pro-democracy advocates were arrested. Listen to that, ladies and gentlemen. Hundreds of pro-democracy advocates were arrested just hours before the president’s Air Force One touched down. Many of them were members of the Ladies in White – Las Damas de Blanco. The Ladies in White are mothers, wives, daughters, sisters of current or former political prisoners. These brave women continue to speak out for justice and freedom against a regime that oppresses them daily and arrests them every Sunday when they walk peacefully to church.
Two weeks ago, the Ladies in White leader Berta Soler – and we saw her in one of the posters – she asked President Obama very pointedly – and there they are getting arrested, harassed as they do all the time – she said please visit Gandhi Park where we meet. Meet with the victims of Castro’s repression. Well, President Obama responded by stating “no one should face harassment, arrest, or physical assault simply because they are exercising a universal right to have their voices heard.” That’s absolutely true. And then he added that he would raise these issues directly with their oppressor, Raul Castro. But once you have already embraced the oppressor of the Ladies in White and legitimized the regime on the world stage, what do these empty rhetoric and phrases matter – to any of them?
In February 2015, Berta Soler testified before our House Committee on Foreign Affairs and she stated: “our demands are quite concrete: Freedom for political prisoners, recognition of civil society, the elimination of all criminal dispositions that penalize freedom of expression and association, and the right of the Cuban people to choose their future through free, plural elections.” Elections in Cuba? Fidel Castro famously said “elections for what?” They don’t have any political system at all. It’s only one party that’s allowed to operate, that’s the communist party. They have selections, not elections.
The Cuban people deserve more than just lip-service and platitudes from the White House. They are demanding actions and reforms in Cuba to unclench the fist of the Castro control. But solely a meeting with Cuban civil society is a very low bar, Mr. Speaker. It is not enough to help the Cuban people, especially after shaking the hands of a murderous tyrant like Raul Castro. However, even this meeting with civil society is being undermined by Castro’s thugs. Even this low bar – “gee, if I just meet with dissidents, check it off the list, then my trip will have been a success.” Many civil society members have stated that they are now under house arrest as I speak. That Castro security agents are preventing them from leaving their own homes until President Obama leaves Cuba.
In Cuba’s communist newspaper called Granma, the regime noted that President Obama’s trip to Havana dispels the myth that human rights are being violated on the island. They’re no fools. They understand. The image is worth a thousand words. The image of President Obama in Cuba says “no human rights are being violated.” And the regime knows that all of the concessions that President Obama has given comes with no strings attached – and I will end with this, Mr. Speaker – no reforms are needed, no changes need to be made. In fact, the Castro regime has already stated that it will not change one bit after all of these concessions. The Cuban people deserve better. The American people deserve better. Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the time.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., was first elected to Congress in 1989.