Cuba hearings begin on Capitol Hill

Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson will testify on the president’s new Cuba policy at hearings in both the House and Senate. She is shown here visiting the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald on Jan. 24, 2015 as she returned from Cuba where she headed the U.S. delegation at normalization talks.
Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson will testify on the president’s new Cuba policy at hearings in both the House and Senate. She is shown here visiting the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald on Jan. 24, 2015 as she returned from Cuba where she headed the U.S. delegation at normalization talks. el Nuevo Herald.

Update from Chris Adams of the McClatchy Washington Bureau:

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio began Congress’ assault on the White House plan to relax trade, travel and diplomatic restrictions with Cuba, telling top administration officials that he didn’t think they would be effective and that human rights were being overlooked.

In the first of three congressional hearings on President Barack Obama’s policy that are scheduled in various committees this week, Rubio laid into the administration. Rubio reiterated his strong objections to the policy, saying he had “deep reservations” about them.

He did, he said, “for the simple reason that I don’t think they will be effective.”

The West Miami Republican and potential presidential candidate has emerged as Congress’ chief critic for the new Cuba policy. In a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing Tuesday, Rubio said the opening to Cuba neglected the reality of human rights abuses on the island nation.

Rubio took the reins of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee as Republicans took control of the Senate last month.

The administration, represented by Roberta S. Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, contended the U.S. was pursuing the opening with its eyes wide open, and that it was time to pursue a different strategy from the one that has failed for half a century.

Both Rubio and New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, are key Senate opponents to the policy, and both were involved in the subcommittee hearing.

Menendez, in his opening statement, said that despite the length of the negotiations between U.S. and Cuban officials, they didn’t yield anything worthwhile.

“Let me be as clear on this issue as I have been since December,” he said. “Eighteen months of secret negotiations produced a bad deal – bad for the Cuban people. While it may have been done with the best of intentions, in my view, we’ve compromised bedrock principles for minimal concessions.”

He continued: “At the end of the day, 53 political prisoners were released while so many more remain in jail – and the Cuban people – those who suffered most under the regime – still have zero guarantees for any basic freedoms.”

Other senators involved were supportive of this policy, including Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, and Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona. Flake said it was time to relax travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba, something he has pushed for years.

The Obama administration plans to open the door to Cuba become public with a dramatic unveiling in December, with the release of U.S. aid worker Alan Gross and the announcement that trade and travel restrictions will be eased and that the U.S. would work to established a diplomatic presence in Cuba.

In his questioning, Rubio pushed the administration for information on who on the U.S. side negotiated for the changes, and drilled into the fact that Jacobson’s office was not the prime mover of the changes. And he wanted to know which pro-democracy groups in Cuba were consulted.

He also pushed for a declaration from the administration that the opening of any diplomatic presence, such as a U.S. embassy, wouldn’t come with restrictions on who in the country embassy personnel could visit.

Citing recent public comments from a top Cuban official, Rubio asked Jacobson whether the U.S. would ever go forward with an agreement that – as the Cuban official indicated – made certain pro-democracy activists in the country off-limits.

In a back-and-forth with Jacobson, Rubio pressed her to answer what he said was “a pretty straight-forward question.”

After first saying they were seeking to maintain the greatest ability to speak with whomever they want, and that they were going to push to get restrictions lifted, Rubio pushed for clarity on what the U.S. would or wouldn’t allow.

She eventually said she couldn’t imagine going to the next stage with such restrictions in place.

The first panel in the hearing has included Jacobson and another State Department official. The second panel will include four Cuban human rights activists.The first in a series of congressional hearings examining the potential impact of President Barack Obama’s new Cuba policy gets underway Tuesday in the Senate.

Later in the week, the action switches to the House with two hearings: the main show — “Assessing the Administration’s Sudden Shift’’ — before the Committee on Foreign Affairs on Wednesday and a subcommittee hearing on human rights in Cuba on Thursday.

The common theme for this week’s hearings seems to be whether Obama gave away too much without getting enough from Cuba as the two countries work toward restoring diplomatic relations.

That’s the position of Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Western Hemisphere subcommittee called the first Cuba hearing at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

In an opinion piece he wrote Monday for CNN, Rubio recalled a line from The Godfather Part II in which mob character Michael Corleone responds to the demands of a U.S. senator by saying, “My offer is this: nothing.”

“In recent months, I’ve made clear that I believe the president and his allies in Congress are misguided for supporting a policy that gives away practically all the leverage the United States has to bring about democratic change in Cuba in exchange for virtually nothing,” wrote Rubio.

The senator said he wants answers on what the administration has done to secure the repatriation of an estimated 70 fugitives from U.S. justice who now live in Cuba as well as “what exactly the Castro regime has done in exchange for Obama’s softening of travel and banking regulations that will now allow more U.S. dollars to fill the Castro regime’s coffers.”

Rubio, who is testing the waters for a possible presidential run, called the hearing the same day he assumed the subcommittee chairmanship last week.

Among those scheduled to testify at the Senate hearing are Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, who recently headed the U.S. delegation during normalization talks in Havana, and Tomasz Malinowski, assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor.

Rosa María Payá, of the Cuban Christian Liberation Movement, also is scheduled to testify. She is the daughter of Oswaldo Payá, one of Cuba’s most respected dissidents when he died in a mysterious 2012 car crash.

She’ll be joined by activists Berta Soler, Miriam Leiva, and Manuel Cuesta Morúa.

There’s expected to be an overflow crowd when the House Foreign Affairs Committee convenes at 10 a.m. Wednesday. The hearing will be webcast at

“The Obama administration’s sudden shift on Cuba policy raises many concerns, including how hard the United States pressed the Castro regime on its abysmal human-rights record during the secret White House negotiations that cut out the State Department,” said Republican Rep. Ed Royce, a Californian who chairs the Committee on Foreign Affairs.

“When it comes to the unilateral concessions provided to the Castro regime, the Obama administration has much to answer for. From the commercial goodie bag provided to the Castro regime to the pardons bestowed upon three convicted spies, one of whom was responsible for the murder of American citizens, the concessions provided to these Caribbean despots is pathetic,” said South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

“I look forward to hearing from State, Treasury, and Commerce and questioning the basis for normalizing relations with an unworthy regime that continues to detain dissidents,” she said.

In addition to Jacobson, John E. Smith, deputy director of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Export Administration Matthew S. Borman are slated to testify.

During a Thursday morning hearing on human rights before the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, Jorge Luis García Pérez, an anti-Castro activist known as Antúnez, will testify.