Senator Leahy Recognizes Engage Cuba on the One-Year Anniversary of Improved U.S.-Cuba Relations

Mr. LEAHY. Madam President, today is an important day for two reasons. One, it is a sad day because it was just a few years ago today when a dear friend, Senator Dan Inouye, died--one of my closest friends and former President pro tempore and senior Member of this body.

   It is also a good day because it marks one year since the release of Alan Gross from a Cuban prison where he had spent 5 years. During that time he lost more than 100 pounds, he lost five teeth, his mother died, his mother-in-law died, his brother-in-law died, and he missed his daughter's wedding.

   I worked for years to help obtain Alan Gross's release and the return of the remaining members of the so-called Cuban Five, who had served more than 15 years in U.S. prisons. Scott Gilbert, Alan Gross's lawyer, did an outstanding job, traveling countless times to Cuba . He skillfully advocated on Alan's behalf with Cuban and U.S. officials. My foreign policy adviser, Tim Rieser, went down several times to boost Alan Gross's morale, visiting him in prison and bringing him messages.

   My larger purpose, like my good friend from Arizona Senator Flake, who has been a real partner in this, was to finally put the Cold War behind us and to start looking forward to a new era.

   Like Senator Flake and many others, I was convinced that such a step would be widely embraced by the U.S. business community, by religious groups, by academia, the scientific community, the media, and Americans across the political spectrum. I also knew it would be welcomed around the world, including in countries where people believe in democracy and human rights as strongly as we do.

   I remember when an ambassador from a South American country came up to my wife Marcelle, saying: We have always respected the United States but also we respected Cuba , and your relationship with Cuba was like a stone in our shoe. Now, by restoring relations with Cuba , you have removed the stone from our shoe.

   He, like so many others, recognized that Alan Gross's release ushered in a new day in United States-Cuba relations. I will never forget on August 14, standing there when our flag was raised at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, listening to our national anthem played, and I heard Cubans standing just outside the gates of the Embassy cheering when the American flag went up. It was a deeply moving experience to be there on a swelteringly hot day.

   We had 54 years of a failed, punitive policy that achieved none of its objectives. President Obama and President Raul Castro wisely decided it was time to chart a new path.

   The reaction of the people of the United States and Cuba has been overwhelmingly positive. Even some of Cuba's most vocal critics of the Castro government have welcomed this new opening.

   Which brings me back to Alan Gross. He had every reason to be a bitter defender of U.S. sanctions, but instead he strongly supported the new policy of engagement. He has never expressed anything but warmth and admiration for the Cuban people.

   Contrast that with the small handful of Members of Congress who continue to defend a discredited policy of isolation that has been repudiated by large majorities of their own constituents, denounced by every other government in the hemisphere, and which even they acknowledge it has not succeeded.

   Their answer is to keep it in place, even opposing efforts by the State Department to improve security and staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, to which the Cuban Government has agreed.

   I ask that you to look at this photograph of Alan Gross and his wife. I took this just minutes after he was told he was going home. Senator Flake, Congressman Van Hollen, and I were there to pick him up. This is not the face of a bitter man. When I took this picture, I thought as I pressed the shutter that this is the face of a man who knows we can have different days.

   I am not so naive to think that reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba is going to result in the rapid transformation of Cuba into a democracy. Cuba's leaders are steadfast believers in a repressive political system that has enabled them to hold power unchallenged for more than half a century. Their economic policies have been a disaster, resulting in daily hardships for the Cuban people. You can see it whenever you travel to Cuba . While the Cuban Government blames its economic problems on the U.S. embargo, no one seriously believes that, although it is undeniable that the embargo has exacerbated the hardships.

   It is also undeniable that support for the embargo in the United States, from the business community to the human rights community, has evaporated. I wonder how many Members of Congress know that in the past 5 years the Government of Cuba , while blaming us for the embargo, has imported more than $1 billion in U.S. agriculture and medical products. American exports mean American jobs.

   There would be a lot more exports if we got rid of the embargo. Right now it is punishing American workers, as well as Cubans.

   Why are we also punishing half a million Cuban entrepreneurs who already work in the private sector and are no longer dependent on the government? Why not support the private sector in Cuba as we do everywhere else in the world? Why not open the United States to the emerging Cuban market?

   I think it is past time to replace vindictiveness and personal family grievances with what is best for the American people.

   I have condemned the Cuban Government's arrest and imprisonment, after unfair trials, of individuals that have done nothing more than peacefully protest against the government's repressive policies. At least two of them were among the 53 who were released as part of our agreement a year ago. Eleven others released earlier still cannot travel freely.

   But Cuba's leaders cannot stop the tide of history any more than any of us can. The majority of Cubans were not even born at the time of the 1959 revolution. They have very different priorities and aspirations than those who overthrew Batista's corrupt, abusive regime. Cuba is changing in ways that will mean more freedom and more engagement in the world, and more economic opportunities.

   During the past 12 months, the Obama administration has taken historic steps to implement the new policy. After so many decades, when U.S.-Cuba relations were frozen, the progress in the last year has been breathtaking. Talks are underway between both governments on a wide range of issues, including one wrapping up last night on resuming direct mail and air service, but also on law enforcement cooperation and property claims.

   Senator Flake, who has been such a leader on this--he and I have introduced legislation, cosponsored by 45 other Democrats and Republicans, to end restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba . Those restrictions don't exist for travel to any other country, including North Korea and Iran. If our bill were called up for a vote, and if we listened to the American people, it would pass easily.

   This year the Senate Appropriations Committee passed, with bipartisan majorities, a similar travel amendment by Senator Moran and me and two other amendments to facilitate U.S. agriculture exports and shipping to and from Cuba .

   In contrast, the House of Representatives adopted half a dozen provisions offered by just one Member that would turn back the clock.

   I have no doubt that the path begun by President Obama and President Raul Castro is the right one for the people of both countries, and that the dwindling few who continue to try to stand in its way will fail.

   History is not on their side. Rather than continue to cling to a policy that was misguided from its inception and that did nothing to help the Cuban people, they should respect the will of their constituents and the Cubans on whose behalf they erroneously claim to speak.

   It was only 12 months ago that Senator Flake and I walked up the gangplank onto the President's plane with Alan and Judy Gross. I took many photographs that day, and our son-in-law, Lawrence Jackson, one of the President's photographers, was also there recording it for posterity.

   Look at how much has been accomplished in those 12 months for the benefit of the people of Cuba and the United States. It has done more for the reputation of the United States and its influence in this hemisphere than has been done in the past half century.

   I ask unanimous consent that a chronology of those accomplishments prepared by the Engage Cuba coalition be printed in the Record at the conclusion of my remarks.

   I hope that before another year passes the Congress will finally recognize that it too has a responsibility to respect the will of the people, to end the embargo and to stop interfering with the right of Americans to travel. And that exposing the Cuban people to our ideas, our principles, and our products is the best policy for the future.

   I see my dear friend, the Senator from Arizona, on the floor.

   I yield the floor.