The bribery trial of New Jersey senator Bob Menendez gets underway this week. But he should have been investigated long ago for his links to Cuban American terrorists.

Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, arrives at federal court in New York, US, on May 13, 2024. (Victor J. Blue / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

An FBI raid. Close to half a million dollars in cash. A new Mercedes convertible. Four bars of gold.

The trial of Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, gets underway this week. He is charged with acting as an Egyptian “foreign agent”: taking bribes in exchange for greasing weapons sales to that country while chair of the powerful Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Menendez is the only senator in US history to have faced two federal indictments. Back in 2015, he was charged with accepting nearly $1 million in gifts and donations to help a corrupt South Florida doctor wriggle out of a multimillion dollar Medicare bill and bag a lucrative port security contract in the Dominican Republic. The trial ended in a hung jury.

But his corruption didn’t start then.

While the Cuban American senator had no scruples signing off on billions of dollars in weapons sales to one of the world’s most repressive regimes, which murdered more than one thousand political activists in one day in 2011, when it comes to Cuba he has long styled himself a human rights defender. Over the last three years he has taken credit for blocking the Biden administration from returning to any Obama-style opening with the island.

Hard-Liner on the Hudson

Back in the 1980s, Menendez was mayor of Union City, a small city in northern New Jersey on the banks of the Hudson River. Home at the time to the second-largest concentration of Cubans in the United States after Miami, Union City was known as “Havana on the Hudson.”

In 1987, as mayor, Menendez appeared at a fundraiser for and contributed to the legal defense of Eduardo Arocena, the self-confessed leader of Omega 7, a far-right Cuban group that took out people and politicians who favored engagement with the island. Three years previously, Arocena had been jailed by a New York federal court for over thirty bombings and two assassinations — including that of Cuban diplomat Félix García Rodríguez, the first ever UN diplomat to be murdered on US soil.

Sometimes the “law at a given time has to be broken,” Menendez told local newspaper the Hudson Dispatch that year, when questioned about his support for Arocena. He added that the fight for a free Cuba should be carried out “wherever the enemy may be.”

While the newspaper stood by the article, Menendez subsequently said he was misquoted. But he never denied attending the fundraiser.

The following day, he told another local newspaper, the Jersey Journal, that he supported the legal defense of Cuban exiles Alvin Ross, Guillermo Novo, and Ignacio Novo. All three were members of Omega 7 who had been charged with assassinating Allende-era Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier in Washington, DC eight years earlier at the behest of Augusto Pinochet’s secret police.

Even for those familiar with the history of US terrorism against Cuba since the 1959 revolution, Menendez’s financial and public support for these cases is astonishing because it’s brazen support for terrorism carried out inside the United States.

Even for those familiar with the history of US terrorism against Cuba since the 1959 revolution (the Cuban government puts the number killed at over three thousand), Menendez’s financial and public support for these cases is astonishing because it’s brazen support for terrorism carried out inside the United States: Omega 7’s assassinations and bombings were all over the national news at the time, and the FBI described the group as America’s “most dangerous terrorist organization.”

New Jersey restaurateur Ramon Díaz, a former Menendez donor who now regularly travels to the island, tells Cuban reporter Liz Oliva in Hardliner on the Hudson, Belly of the Beast’s new film on Menendez, what he thinks would have happened to him had he advocated lifting the embargo at the time: “At least my restaurants would have burnt down. Most likely I would have been shot.”

Giving a flavor of late-’70s exile politics, he recounts how he turned down an offer to join Alpha 66, another anti-Castro group, which up until the 1990s was “taking high speed boats to resorts on the coast of Cuba and spraying bullets.”

Follow the Money

In a clip bordering on farce, we see a convicted cocaine trafficker — whom Menendez invited to his swearing-in as senator in 2006 — next to a bronze plaque dedicated to local clothing tycoon Arnaldo Monzón in Union City. He describes Monzón, who passed away in 2000, as “the city’s godfather.”

Menendez has described Monzón as a “friend.” But the two were much closer than that. Menendez dated Monzón’s daughter for years and considered him his father-in-law, according to two sources with knowledge of their relationship. Monzon also helped launch his political career.

“Monzón created Bob Menendez,” restaurateur Ramon Díaz tells Oliva during the film. He “groomed and influenced anybody he could to make sure that Bob Menendez went up the ladder.”

Records show Monzón, who owned a string of women’s clothing stores in New Jersey, was on the steering committee to get Menendez elected mayor in 1982, that he donated to his mayoral campaign and subsequent campaigns for congress in the ’90s, and that he organized fundraisers.

But Monzón wore many hats. He was also on the board of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the backbone of the Cuban American lobby in the 1980s and ’90s. Outwardly a peaceful organization, in the early 1990s the CANF created a “secret paramilitary wing” headed up by Monzón.

An FBI investigation later established a money trail linking Monzón to infamous terrorist Luis Posada Carriles.

Monzón and Abel Hernandez, another Menendez campaign contributor, had wired money to Posada Carriles in El Salvador and Guatemala. This money financed a series of fatal bombings in Cuban hotels intended to crush the island’s tourism industry in 1997.

Cuban born, CIA-trained Posada Carriles is best known for masterminding the midair bombing of a Cuban airliner in 1976. Plastic explosives disguised as tubes of Colgate toothpaste took the lives of all seventy-three men, women, and children on board.

Monzón and Posada Carriles had been friends ever since their childhood in Cuba, according to the Miami Herald, and grew closer in the mid-1990s.

At Posada Carriles’s trial in El Paso, Texas in 2011, Monzón’s accountant was subpoenaed and testified that Monzón and Abel Hernandez, another Menendez campaign contributor, had wired money to Posada Carriles in El Salvador and Guatemala. This money financed a series of fatal bombings in Cuban hotels intended to crush the island’s tourism industry in 1997.

The Politics of Impunity

At that El Paso trial, Posada Carriles was in the dock not for terrorism or  mass murder, but for the much smaller charges of perjury and immigration fraud. Even so there was political mobilization to defend him: Republican congresspeople rallied to have him let off, and the FBI even managed to “lose” his file.

He was acquitted. And so one of the Western Hemisphere’s most notorious terrorists never spent a day in a US jail, and lived out the rest of his days in Miami until he passed away in 2018 at the age of ninety.

Just last week a US judge found Alexander Alazo Baró, a Cuban American who shot dozens of rounds at the Cuban embassy in Washington with an AK-47 in 2020, “not guilty by reason of insanity,” despite his attorney playing down any role mental illness may have played in the attack.

“Cuban American terrorists have always enjoyed impunity in this country,” says Jose Pertierra, a Cuban American immigration lawyer, who sat through the Posada Carriles trial. “The place to retire has always been Miami. But New Jersey has always been very important as it’s Miami North.”

Sure enough, high-profile New Jersey–based Cuban American domestic terrorists typically wind up either serving shortened terms or dodging justice completely.

High-profile New Jersey–based Cuban American domestic terrorists typically wind up either serving shortened terms or dodging justice completely.

Omega 7 hitmen Guillermo Novo and Alvin Ross were found guilty of multiple counts of murder and were sentenced to eighty years in 1979 — but released on a technicality two years later.

Guillermo Novo was arrested again in Panama in 2000, along with Posada Carriles and two others, this time for plotting to blow up Fidel Castro with two hundred pounds of dynamite and C-4 explosives. But four years later they were all released by the Panamanian government, following pressure from Cuban American members of Congress and the Bush administration.

The release of Omega 7 kingpin Eduardo Arocena took longer, involving a decades-long campaign for his release supported by Democratic senator Joe Leiberman and Republican members of Congress Lincoln Díaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Requests for his sentence to be commuted were denied by the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. He was finally let out for health reasons in 2021, during the first months of the Biden administration, when Menendez was at the peak of his powers.

Sometimes the exile community hasn’t just protected terrorists; it’s celebrated them.

Orlando Bosch, who, along with Posada Carriles, masterminded the bombing of Cubana flight 455, was pardoned by President George H. W. Bush in 1990. Miami politicians went further: declaring March 25, 1983 Orlando Bosch Day.

An in Miami in particular, events can become self-parody: just months after September 11 and the launch of the global “war on terror,” the US Secret Service allowed Sixto Aquit Manrique, a former member of Omega 7 who had been arrested by the FBI’s anti-terrorism squad seven years earlier, to sit onstage a few rows behind President George W. Bush as he delivered a speech.

A few months earlier President Bush had solemnly stated: “If you harbor a terrorist, if you feed a terrorist, if you hide a terrorist, you’re just as guilty as the terrorist.”

No Changes “Without Consulting Me”

Last time round on the presidential campaign, Joe Biden promised to “reverse the failed Trump policies that inflicted harm on Cubans and their families.” This never happened. Most of the Trump sanctions — which economists say gouge billions of dollars a year from the island’s economy — are still in place. The maintenance of these sanctions has become the centerpiece of the Biden administration’s Cuba policy.

Most of the Trump sanctions are still in place. The maintenance of these sanctions has become the centerpiece of the Biden administration’s Cuba policy. And Menendez has taken the credit.

And Menendez has taken the credit. Hardliner shows TV clips of him recounting how he told President Obama that there should be no change in Cuba policy “without consulting me.” While back then he was sidelined, the Senate has been on a knife’s edge for most of the Biden administration, giving Menendez more leverage. He told Telemundo in November 2021 that he had stopped the current administration from returning to Obama’s Cuba policy. “On the contrary,” he said, “President Biden has tightened our policy against the regime.”

The most potent measure the Biden administration has left in place is the cynical relisting of Cuba in the State Department’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism.” The terrorist label has all but locked the island out of the European banking system, further crippling the island’s economy and undermining food security.

Branding Cuba as a sponsor of terrorism strikes many observers as ironic. Not only because of Washington’s history of sponsoring terrorism against the island in the 1960s and of harboring terrorists well into this century, but also because it contradicts the consensus of even US intelligence officers that the island does not sponsor terrorism — the reason why neither the Trump nor the Biden administration could offer any credible evidence to support the listing.

But given Menendez’s past, the irony runs deeper: over the decades US officials have consistently used language that shows the sanctions are meant to hit the Cuban people (a 1960s State Department memo said the sanctions should “bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government,” while the Trump administration described its measures as part of a “maximum pressure campaign”).

“The essence of terrorism is threatening or harming one group of people to try to send a message — it’s a violent form of political communication that’s designed to change people’s behavior,” says Richard Jackson, a professor who focuses on terrorism and organized political violence. “So [US actions against Cuba] fit the definition of terrorism that is commonly agreed upon by scholars.”

While the Biden administration seems to have given Menendez a de facto veto on Cuba policy, the eleven million “Cuban people,” whom US politicians say they admire, have no voice and no vote on the issue.

“These sanctions affect me, my family, and my friends,” said Oliva, who still lives in Cuba. “They hit historically marginalized populations particularly hard,” she added, pointing to how black Cubans are less likely to work in the higher-paying private sector, and more likely to work in the increasingly low-wage state sector.

Americans aren’t consulted either. The last nationwide poll on American attitudes toward Cuba, carried out by Pew Research Center in 2016, found a gaping democratic deficit: 73 percent of Americans (including most Republicans) said they were against the trade embargo.

The last nationwide poll on American attitudes toward Cuba found a gaping democratic deficit: 73 percent of Americans (including most Republicans) said they were against the trade embargo.

Cuban Americans are also misrepresented. The last Florida International University poll found that while the majority of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade County in South Florida say they support the embargo, they also believe it hasn’t worked. The poll also found most Cuban Americans support softening of the sanctions to allow unfettered sale of food and medicine, unrestricted remittances, diplomatic relations, and flights to the entire island.

So who do politicians like Menendez really represent? The New Jersey restaurateur Ramon Díaz says it straight: “Wealthy Cubans in this country donate heavily to senators and congressmen who will maintain the embargo. . . . It’s a money issue.”

While the CANF disbursed millions of dollars to candidates in its day, in the early 2000s it was superseded by the US-Cuba Democracy PAC, which, until it wound down spending in 2018, was one of the largest single foreign policy PACs in the country, disbursing millions of dollars in races in the House and the Senate.

“We always keep about $200,000 on hand” just in case any congressperson or senator is tempted to push hard to end the embargo, Mauricio Claver-Carone, the PAC’s executive director told the Inter-American Dialogue’s Dan Erikson for his 2009 book, The Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, the United States, and the Next Revolution. “It’s a very nice way of saying, ‘Hey there’s $200,000 that will go toward commercials against you if you try to do that. So pick another issue.’”

Claver-Carone went on to work as Trump’s top adviser for Latin America between 2018 and 2020, penning dozens of measures that steamrollered the island’s economy. Erikson, as it happens, now occupies that same post in the Biden administration.

Menendez has been the lobby’s heavyweight Democratic figure for the last two decades — the stolid non-Republican, non-Floridian senator who contrasts to the sometimes carnivalesque figures in Miami. But he is no outlier.

Working both sides of the aisle since the ’80s, the Cuban American lobby has effectively captured this facet of US foreign policy today. Regardless of party, Cuban American politicians are in lockstep: with the exception of one young Democratic congressman, all support the policy of intentionally driving down the living standards of those on the island.

During the film Oliva asks Albio Sires, who stood down as a Democratic congressman representing New Jersey last year, what the differences are between Democrat and Republican Cuban Americans in Congress. His reply: “There was no difference between us when it comes to Cuba.”

At the beginning of Menendez’s career, assassins were used to eliminate political opponents; now campaign dollars are preferred. While bombs were once used to sink the island’s economy, today the job is done more effectively with financial sanctions. The methods change over time, but objectives remain the same.

US policy on Cuba has little to do with what Cubans, Americans, and even Cuban Americans want. Rather this policy is today foisted on Cubans by a small clique.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be like this. Ten years ago this December, the United States announced it would restore diplomatic relations with the island and ease the sanctions. Successful negotiations between the Barack Obama and Raul Castro administrations revealed the Cuban American lobby as a paper tiger — something that can be leapfrogged by a US administration with political will. But when the White House takes no action, this zombie policy lingers on, with millions of Cubans paying the price.

You can stream Hardliner on the Hudson, a new documentary that covers Bob Mendenez’s political history and role in shaping Cuba-US relations, here.

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