Could Menendez’s legal travails affect US policy on Cuba? - Mikael Wolfe

April 26, 2022: Sen. Bob Menendez, then chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, looks on during a committee budget hearing. Credit: (Bonnie Cash/Pool...

[Editor’s note: This article has been updated with comments from U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez sent after publication.]

In 1954, a year into the Cuban Revolution, Bob Menendez was born in New York City to Cuban émigrés — a seamstress and carpenter. He has described his parents as fleeing “an oppressive regime” during the island nation’s intense political moment.

The family moved to Hudson County, where Menendez soon established his political career. He went from the Union City Board of Education to the state  Assembly, then to the U.S. House of Representatives and ultimately the U.S. Senate in 2006.

“He’s the son of Cuban migrants who, like many at the time, mostly in the middle and upper classes, emigrated and were afraid of the revolution and what it would do when it came to power in 1959,” said Mikael Wolfe, associate professor of history at Stanford University and historian of modern Latin America.

Menendez’s origin story became a launch pad to influence U.S. foreign policy in Cuba. Now, all that could be undone by the scandal that has left Menendez charged with corruption and bribery, and depending on his fate, help change the U.S.-Cuban policy going forward, according to experts and others.

The Cuban connection

The ties to Cuba have been a defining chapter of Menendez’s life story rooted in the north Jersey-New York area, which is home to the nation’s largest population of Cuban Americans outside of Florida. And those ties have always been about reversing the seismic changes the revolution caused in Cuba, bringing Fidel Castro to power and spurring Menendez’s family to leave the country.

“He rose to prominence in Union City, New Jersey and sort of relayed that into this position of extreme power in the Senate,” said Jake Johnston, senior research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and expert on economic policy in Latin America.

The central vehicle for controlling Cuban economic and political affairs was the U.S. embargo, which remains to this day, with Menendez a strong and important supporter during his time as the influential chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In May, Menendez as chair of the committee wrote a letter to colleagues in the House, opposing their calls for President Biden to reverse sanctions policies on Cuba and Venezuela.

“…Cubans and Venezuelans are leaving their homeland because of one simple fact: they are suffering under the yoke of brutal dictatorships,” Menendez said in his letter, defending his stance on extreme sanctions. “These actions, not U.S. sanctions policies, are responsible for the ongoing exodus of Venezuelan and Cuban refugees and migrants. Removing U.S. sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela will only betray our democratic values and further empower criminal dictators.”