An Arizona Senator’s joke that allowing U.S. spring break revelers to travel to Cuba would amount to a real “get-tough” policy against the Castro government drew a stinging rebuke from Cuban American Sen. Bob Menendez.
“I had no intention of raising it, but, you know, to suggest that spring break is a form of — a form of torture to the Castro regime — unfortunately, they are experts about torture,” Menendez said as he closed a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
Earlier in the hearing Thursday to confirm Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., as secretary of state, Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican and long-time advocate of normalizing relations with Cuba, had cracked a joke about the best way to deal with the communist government.
“The best way to foster change and progress toward democracy is to allow travel, free travel of Americans, to let them go as they wish,” he said. “In fact, I’ve often felt that if we want a real get-tough policy with the Castro brothers, we should force them to deal with spring break once or twice.”
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Flake said he favors fully open travel to Cuba.
“I don’t think that that’s a weakness or any capitulation at all,” he said. “I think it’s a way to show strength.”
The idea that bikini-clad and drunken college kids on spring breaks might push Cuba’s 54-year-old dictatorship toward democracy drew laughter in the chamber but angered Menendez, who is all but certain to succeeded Kerry as committee chairman.
In 2012 alone, Cuban police carried out a record 6,600 short-term arrests of peaceful dissidents such as the Ladies in White, female relatives of former political prisoners, noted the New Jersey Democrat who favors strong U.S. sanctions on the island.
“Just this past Sunday, the Ladies in White, a group of women who dress in white and march every Sunday with a gladiolus to church, tried to come together to go to church the result is that more than 35 of the Women in White were intercepted, beaten with belts, threatened to death by agents aiming guns at them and temporarily arrested,” he complained.
“And then we have a United States citizen who all he tried to do is give access to the Internet to a small Jewish population in Havana and has been languishing in jail for nearly four years. That’s real torture,” he added.
Menendez referred to Alan Gross, arrested in 2009 and serving a 15-year sentence for delivering communications equipment to Jewish groups as part of a U.S. “pro-democracy” program that Cuba has outlawed as designed to topple the government.
Neither Menendez nor Flake returned El Nuevo Herald calls seeking comment for this story.
Flake is a freshman senator but served 12 years in the House, where he repeatedly submitted or endorsed bills to ease U.S. sanctions on Havana. He also has made several trips to Cuba as part of congressional delegations.
U.S. tourist trips to the island are banned under the decades-old U.S. embargo, but the Obama administration has eased restrictions on other types of travel, saying it wants to engage its people but not its government.
The administration has lifted virtually all restrictions on Cuban American travel to the island for “family reunification” visits, and allowed a growing number of non-Cuban-Americans to visit on “educational” trips known as “people to people” visits.
An ABC News report on the Flake-Menendez incident noted that another Cuban-American Senator at the confirmation hearing, Florida Republican Marco Rubio, made no mention of Cuba during his questioning of Kerry and instead focused on North Korea, Syria, the Middle East and China.