Targeting Sen. Menendez: Obama’s push to ‘normalize’ U.S.-Cuban ties made strange bedfellows

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Global Information System/Defense & Foreign Affairs

The seemingly unrelenting wave of media “revelations” in the United States against one of the key strategic policy officials in the government, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (Democrat, New Jersey), has its origins not in any malfeasance or misadventure by the Senator, but in deeper political warfare involving the Cuban government and others.

A “perfect storm” of coinciding political interests in Havana, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere in the Americas has now focused increasingly around Sen. Menendez as the key impediment to the desires of the Cuban government and the White House to re-establish U.S.-Cuban relations. But behind this may also be that he stands in the way of Cuban-related criminal activities.

Beyoncé and Jay-Z in Cuba.  /
Beyoncé and Jay-Z in Cuba. /

Sen. Menendez has refused, because of the nature of his own political base, to support the White House’s desire to normalize U.S.-Cuban relations, even though this is one of the key foreign policy objectives of President Barack Obama. And this has been only one area where Sen. Menendez — whose Democratic Party “machine” in New Jersey delivered the state’s vote to Barack Obama in two Presidential elections — has incurred the enmity of the President.

The goal of “normalization” with Cuba became one step more important for Mr. Obama with the failure, as far as U.S. media “bounce” was concerned, of his Middle East initiative to reconcile Israel and Turkey, and to be seen — with the presidential Middle East trip (March 20-23, 2013) — as popular in that region.

The White House-sanctioned visit to Cuba in early April 2013 by U.S. pop stars Jay-Z and Beyoncé reflected this.

“Normalization” is also the most significant strategic objective and desired legacy of the Cuban government of President Raúl Castro Ruz, to the point where the Cuban leadership has committed the Dirección de Inteligencia (DI: Directorate of Intelligence), to focus as its principal current mission on the removal of Sen. Menendez from his position blocking the process.

The DI has worked largely through cut-outs in the Dominican Republic to create a rolling series of “scandals” supposedly involving Sen. Menendez, in order to force his resignation from the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

For the most part, the scandals relied, in order to achieve media publicity, on a series of claims by Dominican Republic prostitutes that Sen. Menendez had hired them, and then underpaid them. These claims ensured that allegations of impropriety by the Senator were salacious enough to achieve prominent media coverage in the U.S., so that even when they could be disproven, or the testimony of the prostitutes recanted, the stain of opprobrium would stay with the Senator and be sufficient for the White House to distance itself from the Senator, and to approve Justice Department investigations and indictments of him for other alleged malfeasances. [Not that the allegations of sexual misconduct lacked credibility, given Sen. Menendez’ reputation, but it was significant that the Dominican Republic allegations seemed not even to bother with dredging up actual, verifiable incidents. And even then, Sen. Menendez is hardly alone in Washington political circles for sexual improprieties, given the allegations, for example, against Presidents Bill Clinton, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson.]

Sen. Menendez has had a colorful political career as an almost prototypical Democratic Party “machine” boss in New Jersey, and his free-wheeling past opened the prospect that “something of an illegal nature would stick” against him. Moreover, any Justice Dept. investigation or indictment, regardless of whether or not it resulted in a conviction for serious wrongdoing, would cause a rupture in the Senator’s political credibility — at least — or result directly in his resignation to avoid damaging the Party or the Presidency. And in such a situation and in such a political climate, Sen. Menendez has few Congressional friends who would be prepared to risk their necks to save his.

Thus, in the early months of 2013, the DI campaign through the Dominican Republic cut-outs began to coincide with the White House’s separate moves against Sen. Menendez. It had become apparent, in the closing days of the U.S. Presidential elections in October and November 2012, that President Obama and Sen. Menendez were not functioning in harmony. In a sense, the difference between the Democratic Party’s East Coast operating style — which, behind the scenes, can be brutal to enforce compliance — and that of the Chicago Democratic machine (which has President Obama as its flagship leader) came into the open. And it became clear that the Chicago machine was the more robust.

When Hurricane Sandy devastated New Jersey and other parts of the U.S. East Coast in the days before the Presidential election, President Obama arranged to fly in to inspect the devastated area and win photo opportunities. He successfully — and perhaps almost critically, in terms of the upcoming election — won the support of Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, but at the same time literally ejected New Jersey Sen. Menendez from the Presidential helicopter. This was a significant and very public humiliation by President Obama of Sen. Menendez, despite Menendez’s state Party machine delivering the votes for Obama.

The White House, post-election, then opposed the elevation of Sen. Menendez to the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when that seat became available due to the resignation of Sen. Bob Kerry, who had been nominated to become Secretary of State, replacing the retiring Secretary, Hillary Clinton. The White House demanded that the Senate Committee reconsider its election of Menendez — who had been next in line in the Committee, in terms of seniority — to the Chair. The Committee refused, because it would have been impossible to “un-do” its election in the absence of the concordance of Sen. Menendez.

White House objections to Sen. Menendez center around the senator’s opposition to the normalization of relations with Cuba, but there were apparently other causes for friction between the President and Mr Menendez. But from that point, the White House was happy to see the Cuban DI, under Director Brig.-Gen. Eduardo Delgado Rodriguez, begin the character assassination campaigns against Menendez.

The DI operation has figured heavily around one lawyer in the Dominican Republic, Melanio Figueroa, a political leader of the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano (PRD), and a high-level party fundraiser. It was Figueroa who allegedly organized the statements — later recanted — of four prostitutes who said that they had been hired by Menendez. When Figueroa’s — and his law firm, Centro Juridico Figueroa Asociados — role in this aspect of the scandal emerged, he claimed that the U.S. conservative website, The Daily Caller, had offered him money to arrange for the false testimony of the prostitutes. The Daily Caller was able to credibly refute the allegation, but — so that the scandal was not entirely wasted — Figueroa, presumably at the suggestion of either the DI or the White House, attempted to push blame over to a conservative (ie: pro-Republican Party) source, The Daily Caller.

But by then, Sen. Menendez’ name had already been blackened, and other allegations, less salacious but more to do with legalities, could be “investigated” by shocked U.S. Justice Dept. officials, working under President Obama’s key enforcement ally, Attorney General Eric Holder. These had to do with alleged improprieties by Sen. Menendez in accepting gifts of vacations and rides on a private jet belonging to a long-time friend (and campaign contributor), Dr Salomon E. Melgen, a wealthy Florida eye surgeon. It is clear that the Melgen issue, and the allegations that Sen. Menendez materially assisted the doctor’s business interests, will gain ongoing attention from the Justice Dept.

But questions were raised as to why lawyer Figueroa would take such risks for the Cuban DI. This also appears to have to do with a coincidence of interests between the DI and other clients of Figueroa in the transportation business, although abogado Figueroa has denied being at the center of anything improper. He was Senior Advisor — apparently mostly involved with fundraising support — to 2012 PRD Presidential candidate and populist Rafael Hipólito Mejía Domínguez (President from 2000 to 2004), who lost to Danilo Medina. The reasons for abogado Figueroa getting involved may be unclear, but what was clear was that he did have some political reason (or sponsor) to attempt to smear Sen. Menendez.

There is some suggestion that the involvement which Figueroa, an extremely well-connected politician and lawyer, has with the character-assassination attempts against Sen. Menendez could be connected, perhaps even without Figueroa’s knowledge of the purpose, with the island-hopping geography of Cuba’s trade interests in helping to move Venezuelan-controlled narcotics to the U.S. or another activity designed to circumvent the law. [Figueroa represented, but now cannot locate, the call-girls who claimed (and then recanted) that Sen. Menendez had underpaid them.] The Cuban Government has, in recent years, been conspicuous in being seen to be cooperating with the international community to suppress narco-trafficking, and yet, at the same time, Cuban gangs — ostensibly able to operate outside the control of the pervasive DI influence — have increased their drug operations into the U.S.

There are other matters which could incite discreetly-sponsored hostility to Sen. Menendez with regard to Cuba, particularly relating to the settlement of claims on property seized by the Castro Government when it came to power through the revolution of 1959. Delays in “normalization” could well be costly to some investors, particularly those who bought claims from older, dispossessed Cuban émigrés over the years.

Security and legal considerations mean that this matter can only be discussed carefully in unclassified reporting, but the historical involvement of the Cuban intelligence services in narco-trafficking, the Cuban Government’s strong relationship in supporting Venezuelan Government-led narco-trafficking as a political warfare tool against the U.S., and Cuba’s historical reliance on such trade for revenue set the stage for understanding where the current black operations against Menendez have been moving.

That Sen. Menendez is now in a key foreign policy position in the U.S., and is opposed to both the White House’s and the Cuban Government’s desire to “normalize” U.S.-Cuban relations, makes clear why the White House has condoned — and apparently even encouraged — reporting in The Washington Post and The New York Times targeting the Senator. And yet, as noted above, the Obama-Menendez rift apparently runs to other factors as well.

Significantly, the White House’s apparent unwillingness to “save one of its own” (ie: a fellow Democratic Party lawmaker) was being interpreted in Washington, D.C., as a sign that the allegations in the media were true and that Sen. Menendez was beyond redemption. The argument then followed the course that in the event of Sen. Menendez resigning from the Senate, the Governor of New Jersey — as a Republican — had the right to appoint a replacement Senator to serve out Menendez’ term, and would almost certainly name a Republican. That would not be to the White House’s benefit.

However, White House sources indicated that (a) they could afford to lose one Senate seat to be rid of Menendez, and (b) they felt confident that the Democratic Party would, in any event, win back the seat in the 2018 elections … when President Obama would, in any event, be long retired. The “Chicago team” behind President Obama also indicated that it was necessary, to enforce Party unity, to make an example of Sen. Menendez for opposing the President on the Cuba issue (or any issue).

At present, however, the White House can afford to sit back and allow the DI, and its Dominican Republic friends (who are not within the conservative Government of the DR), carry the campaign against Menendez.

But occasionally the White House is helping to nurse along the anti-Menendez reporting in the U.S. media by appearing to condone it, occasionally confirm it, and by refusing to acknowledge that Cuban intelligence operations were actively engaged in attempting to manipulate the U.S. processes of government.

The affair, which is not expected to die away until Sen. Menendez is somehow defeated, demonstrates the commitment by President Obama — and President Raúl Castro — to re-opening diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S.

President Obama, in his first Presidential term, had already relaxed embargo constraints against Cuba by the U.S. Clearly, the White House has the ability to use executive orders to remove some of the trade barriers between Cuba and the U.S., but President Obama wanted full recognition of, and relations with, Havana as one of the achievements of his presidency. This presumably goes back to Mr Obama’s youthful convictions which did not see Cuba and the Soviet Union as the adversaries.

With many of the landmark achievements which President Obama has sought being tempered or moved out of his grasp, there seems little likelihood that the White House would let the Cuba issue slip away, merely because one senator stood his ground. But it remains to be seen if the White House has the ability to remove Sen. Menendez. It is clear, however, that scandals will continue to surface around him, and the Attorney General will, when he can, attempt to make legal inroads into the senator’s ability to withstand the assault.