Senators question wisdom of Obama's Cuba policy
Alan Gomez, USA TODAY 2:25 p.m. EDT May 20, 2015
WASHINGTON — President Obama's top negotiator with Cuba was grilled
during a tense Senate hearing Wednesday, as senators doubted whether the
normalization of relations with the island would change its communist
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson was repeatedly asked
how the re-establishment of diplomatic relations would end Cuba's dismal
human rights record, its lack of free elections and other injustices
against the Cuban people.
Jacobson argued that having Americans operating more broadly in Cuba —
diplomatically, economically and as regular visitors — would help the
Cuban people reach a point where they could determine their own futures.
She acknowledged that despite months of negotiations, the Cuban
government has not promised any specific changes.
"We're not sure what the Cuban government will do in the face of these
things," Jacobson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I think
they're still absorbing our changes and making their own policy decisions."
Wednesday's hearing came on the eve of the fourth round of diplomatic
talks between Jacobson and her Cuban counterparts at the U.S. State
Department. Jacobson said she was hopeful that could result in a final
agreement to reopen embassies in Havana and Washington after 54 years of
She faced questions about exactly what the U.S., and the Cuban people,
were getting from the deal.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a Cuban-American and 2016 presidential
candidate, asked how the U.S. could prevent the Cuban government from
profiting from the expected increase in travel by Americans, since it
owns all major hotels on the island.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the committee chairman, asked how the ability
of American telecommunications to build up Cuba's Internet
infrastructure would help Cubans, when most of people there are denied
access to the Internet. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., asked whether
fugitives wanted in the U.S. would be returned to face justice.
And Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., a Cuban-American, asked what the country
got in return for removing Cuba from its State Sponsors of Terrorism List.
"President Obama may have outstretched his hand, but the Castros still
have their firsts real tight," Menendez said. "I have deep concerns that
the more these talks progress, the more the administration continues to
entertain unilateral concessions without in return getting agreement on
fundamental issues that are in our national interest and those of the
Jacobson got some support from other committee members answering those
On the question of where Americans would stay in Cuba, Sen. Barbara
Boxer, D-Calif., said the U.S. government should never be in the
business of dictating where its citizens stay when traveling abroad. She
highlighted emerging companies like San Francisco-based Airbnb that are
increasing opportunities for Cuban people to rent out rooms to travelers
on their own.
"Are we going to start telling people what hotels to stay in in China?
In Russia? In Vietnam?" Boxer said. "We don't do that. We're not an
On the questions of American fugitives and expanded human rights, Sen.
Ben Cardin, D-Md., said the U.S. is currently unable to prompt change
precisely because it has no diplomatic relations with the government.
"Every day our diplomats around the world demonstrate their ability to
engage foreign governments and advance U.S. national interests," he
said. "It is not unreasonable to think that we will have a better chance
... if we actually engage in direct dialogue with the Cuban government."
Jacobson told the senators that she was not blind to the many
differences that remain between the U.S. and Cuban governments. "As
anyone who has ever dealt with Cuba knows, a realistic perspective is a
very useful one to have," she said.
She assured them that they were all striving for the same goal — a free,
democratic Cuba — and that engagement is a better option than five
decades of isolation that has failed to change the Castro regime.
"Our policy toward Cuba is based on a clear-eyed strategy that empowers
the Cuban people to determine their own future by creating new economic
opportunities and increasing their contact with the outside world," she
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