US Senator Robert Menendez hosted a conference Monday to address some of the issues being tackled by the Congress and administration. During the course of his discussion, he covered topics regarding the new reconciliation bill in the senate—which he described as a “once in a lifetime opportunity to deliver on behalf of the American people”—and foreign relations.
The arcing theme of the discussion, generally, touched upon authoritarianism and human rights issues both domestic and foreign. Menendez commented on the Supreme Court decision to overrule Roe v. Wade briefly before shifting much of the conversation to Latin America.
“The Supreme Court took us back a half a century,” the senator said regarding the overturning of the 49-year-old ruling. “Not only on the question of a woman’s right to choose and women’s reproductive rights, but the underlying pinnings of privacy, which can now extend, I am concerned, to a whole host of other issues that were decided to expand the rights of Americans through the principle of privacy that are now I believe under assault by this court.”
The comment referenced Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ remark that other Supreme Court rulings, such as those affecting same-sex marriage and same-sex intimacy, should be reviewed.
“On Friday, President Biden took critical steps to safeguard access to all reproductive health care services, no matter where women live, I applaud that.” Executive orders aside, Menendez said that Congress needed to codify full access to reproductive health and protect those rights into law.
On the gun violence crisis, Menendez expressed his pleasure with the Biden administration’s efforts thus far. “I’m glad to see that the President signed the bipartisan Safer Communities Act: common sense gun safety legislation for the first time in 30 years. But as we saw during the Fourth of July weekend, in places across the country there is much more work to be done in that regard.”
Menendez serves as the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one of the oldest and most powerful bodies in the Senate, and he delivered a sharp criticism of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel and the regime. Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, called for more pressure to be put on those in power in Havana.
“Today is also the one-year anniversary of the protests in Cuba. Last year’s historic protests made it clear that the Cuban people want their freedoms,” Menendez said.
The protests last year were caused by food shortages, COVID mismanagement, repressions, and popular discontent with the ruling Communist state. The demonstrations, however, were suppressed. “The Díaz-Canel regime’s response has tightened restrictions on the internet and carried out hundreds of sham trials. Leading human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called it a complete farce. The regime has also unleashed a draconian criminal code that criminalizes international funding for civil society and makes it illegal for Cubans to advocate for change to the Constitution or the government. Imagine that! They can’t even advocate for change in a peaceful process to the Constitution.”
The senator said that these measures were taken to “silence” the Cuban people and intimidate them into compliance. “This is why the United States must do more to confront the Cuban regime’s continued human rights abuses, and its efforts to extinguish the Cuban people’s desire for freedom. The Biden administration was right to impose four rounds of targeted sanctions on the Díaz-Canel regime. But given the absolute lack of justice in Cuba, a lot more is necessary. We have to secure unrestricted access to the internet. We have to boost international pressure on the regime to release political prisoners. We have to work to break the military-oligarch stranglehold on the Cuban economy.”
Menendez said that the increased arrival of Cubans at the southern border was clear evidence of the situation in their home country.
The senator was asked about an upcoming meeting of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico with President Joe Biden. Mexico’s president notably boycotted attending the Summit of the Americas held in Los Angeles this past June. Menendez expressed his concern over Mexico’s erosion of press freedom, the militarization of the police, and the declining independence of the judiciary.
“While I was very disappointed that President Lopez Obrador did not come to the Summit of the Americas,” Menendez said, “I do hope that his visit with President Biden will be a productive one that will deepen on our important historic bilateral relations on economic, security, drug trafficking questions, and human rights and democracy questions.”
Framing the US and Mexico as “good friends,” the senator said that there needs to be “honest discussion” regarding “the concerns that I and others have about the erosion of the pillars of civil society within Mexico.”
The senator expressed his hope that Biden would bring up these “legitimate questions” with President Obrador during his visit “The erosion of a free and independent press, the rights and the protections of [the press], the independence of the judiciary, the elements of security apparatus and how it operates, these are all legitimate questions that I hope will be raised by President Biden, along with the important questions of economic integration, immigration, and security.”
Menendez was asked whether or not President Biden should take a page out of former President Trump’s personal approach to handling interpersonal relationships, particularly with respect to Obrador’s criticisms of the US. He responded in his own diplomatic way.
“I think that all elements of national power should be used in the promotion of diplomacy and public policy towards a country with whatever objectives you have. I appreciate that President Biden has had a respectful relationship with President Lopez,” the senator replied. “But at some point, one has to question… Not coming to the Summit of the Americas? You want to embrace dictators and despots? So be it. But at the end of the day, how do we promote democracy and human rights in the hemisphere as two leading countries? How do we respect civil society?” He repeated his concerns about which issues should be discussed between the two presidents. Menendez’s advice to Biden regarding his relationship with Obrador? As far as national interests go, he should take into consideration what works, what does not appear to work, and what tools and resources he can command to achieve his policy agenda, he said, without elaborating further.