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A Senator who rose to power with help of Cuban hardliners

Originally published: Resumen: Latinoamericano and the Third World on May 11, 2024 by Tracey Eaton (more by Resumen: Latinoamericano and the Third World) (Posted May 21, 2024)
| Bob Menendez | MR Online

Bob Menendez

Sen. Bob Menendez, the most powerful Cuban-American to serve in Congress, goes on trial in Manhattan on May 13 on bribery and other charges. The New Jersey Democrat furiously denies the accusations and vows to wage his “biggest fight yet.” A forgotten story is that Menendez may not have reached the pinnacle of political power without the support of hardline Cuban exiles, including some accused of violent attacks on Cuba. One of the senator’s most important early backers was Arnaldo Monzón, a New Jersey businessman linked to a string of bombings that ripped through hotels and nightclubs in Havana, killing an Italian man and injuring 11 others in 1997.

Cuba’s Interior Ministry blamed Monzón and other exiles.

“Union City businessman called a TERRORIST,” the Jersey Journal declared in its Nov. 9, 1998, edition. Monzón, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1965, denied financing violent attacks on Cuba and was never charged in connection with the bombings.

The senator has rejected the use of violence, and his supporters say linking him with attacks on Cuba is unfair. “These accusations have nothing to do with Bob. Terrorist accusations and his rise to power have little to do with one another,” said Joe Garcia, a former Florida congressman. “He’s not a terrorist and he’s not accused of being a terrorist.” Garcia said he credits Menendez with helping lead a decades-long quest to bring freedom to Cuba. “No Cuban American has ever had more power in their hands at one moment than what Sen. Menendez had at the ascension of Joe Biden to the presidency,” said Garcia, former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, or CANF, an influential lobby organization.

He is clearly the most powerful man in New Jersey politics and can move things his way when he wants to. He’s a very, very smart and skilled politician, probably the most powerful Hispanic to serve in the Senate.

Menendez was born in New York City on Jan. 1, 1954. His parents, Mario and Evangelina Menendez, left Cuba in 1953. They settled in Union City, a densely populated patchwork of apartments and garment factories. The senator’s father struggled as a carpenter and later committed suicide. Menendez grew close to Monzón, a leader of the CANF in New Jersey.

Menendez dated Monzón’s daughter and remained close to the businessman even after they broke up, according to two sources. “In my opinion, Monzón created Bob Menendez,” restaurant owner Ramón Díaz said in a new film called Hardliner on the Hudson by Belly of the Beast, an independent media outlet run by Cuban and American journalists and filmmakers.

“Monzón essentially groomed and influenced anybody he could to make sure Bob Menendez went up the ladder,” said Díaz, who grew up around exiles intent on toppling Cuba’s socialist government.

In 1974, Menendez was elected to the school board in Union City. Later he worked for the mayor, William Musto. Union City was notorious for machine politics and corruption.

“I can’t say I’ve seen a mob boss or anything like that just gunning people down or throwing hookers in a river. But I think New Jersey’s maybe only a couple steps removed from that,” journalist John Heinis said in the film.

In 1981, a grand jury indicted Musto and six others on racketeering, extortion and fraud charges. Menendez wore a bullet-proof vest as he testified against his former mentor, who was convicted of taking kickbacks and sentenced to seven years in prison.

By then, Menendez was a rising star.“Monzón would set up fundraisers for Menendez,” Díaz, a former Menendez supporter, said in the film. “It was an obvious connection. It wasn’t something that was behind the scenes.” In 1986, Menendez was elected mayor of Union City, the largest city in Hudson County, which had the second-largest concentration of Cubans in the U.S., behind Miami. In 1987, he attended a dinner to raise money for Eduardo Arocena, founder of Omega 7, a violent anti-Castro group.

The Hudson Dispatch quoted Menendez as saying,

I endorse the fact that there are times when what one looks at as a law at a given time has to be broken. I don’t look at it that I am supporting ‘a murderer.’ I look on it that I am supporting a goal, which is the liberation of Cuba.

Menendez later said he was misquoted and did not support violence.

Arocena was convicted of murder and terrorist bombings in November 1984. Prosecutors said he ordered the killing of a Cuban diplomat in New York in 1980. At his sentencing, Arocena declared:

I’m an anti-Communist to the death.

Back then, many Cuban exiles backed violent militants, said Díaz, owner of Pintxo y Tapas restaurant in Englewood, New Jersey. “They had a lot of support in the ‘70s, in the ‘80s. Anything was justifiable as long as it hurt the Castro regime,” he said. Entire Cuban families had lost everything after the 1959 revolution, Díaz said. Many expected to return and take back their homes and businesses.“It was war,” he said.

In 1992, Menendez was elected to Congress with the help of the CANF and other exile organizations. The foundation drew controversy when Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles told the New York Times that he had engineered the 1997 bombings with support from some of the CANF’s leaders. ”We didn’t want to hurt anybody,” Posada told the Times. ”We just wanted to make a big scandal so that the tourists don’t come anymore.”Posada said foundation leaders didn’t send him funds for any specific tasks and asked not to be told how he used their money.

Posada later recanted, saying he intentionally misled the Times to protect his real backers. Accusations against foundation leaders persisted.In 2006, Monzón’s longtime accountant testified that he had wired tens of thousand of dollars to Posada.

The accountant’s lawyer, Gilberto M. Garcia, told the Bergen County Record that his client, didn’t know the purpose of the money transfers. By then, Monzón had made a fortune selling discount clothing and was the CANF’s leader in New Jersey.“I have not heard, and I don’t believe, there is any evidence that indicates Mr. Monzón supported any kind of terrorist activity,” Garcia told the newspaper.

Monzón died in 2000 at the age of 63. Menendez attended his funeral.“Arnaldo Monzón was one of the kindest, most humanitarian people I have ever known,” the senator said at the time.

He helped scores of people very quietly; he never wanted to take credit publicly for helping people in North Hudson. He fought for the freedom of the Cuban people.

Source: Tracey Eaton

See the new film by Belly of the Beast, Hardliner on the Hudson.

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