In New Jersey Contest, A Senator With Tough Friends

UNION CITY, N.J.—In his 30-plus years as a player in New Jersey politics, Senator Robert Menendez has cultivated dozens of friends and allies in positions of influence.

But recently, on Sept. 5, one of his allies, a New Jersey business owner and a major fund-raiser for Mr. Menendez, showed up in a curious place: in front of a grand jury in Newark, where he was questioned about the financing of terror bombings in Cuba during the 1990’s. Also appearing in front of the grand jury was the former accountant of a deceased ally and donor for the Senator.

The fund-raiser, Abel Hernandez, and the deceased ally, Arnaldo Monzon, had previously been accused of funding terror attacks in Cuba. Over the years, they have contributed more than $10,000 to Mr. Menendez’s campaigns. And in a separate case from earlier in his career, Mr. Menendez publicly defended and financially supported a man who had been convicted of killing a Cuban official and bombing civilian targets in the United States.

Cuban exile politics haven’t exactly played a large role in this year’s closely fought Senate campaign in New Jersey, which has a tiny 0.9 percent Cuban-American ethnic minority based largely in Mr. Menendez’s home territory, Hudson County. Though the campaign of Republican challenger Tom Kean Jr. has been largely based on attacks on Mr. Menendez over personal ethics, those criticisms have mostly been focused on a specific deal concerning his role in steering federal funds to a group that rents office space in a building that he owns.

It’s not a coincidence that the seemingly remarkable spectacle of close associates of a sitting U.S. Senator being accused of possible involvement in violent terrorist acts has passed almost without notice. It is, in the context of Cuban-American politics, nothing that unusual.

“In American politics, particularly in ethnic politics, there are certain household gods that need to be venerated,” said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers. “If you represent Cuban-Americans, you find yourself perhaps uncomfortably allied with those who advocate armed attacks against Cuba.”

Mr. Baker said he doubted that Mr. Menendez’s ties would factor in many voters’ decisions, other than possibly prompting a relatively small number of liberal suburban supporters to stay home. (Most recent polls have shown Mr. Menendez holding onto a modest lead.)

Mr. Menendez wasn’t made available for comment for this story. But a statement released by his campaign read: “The facts are that Bob Menendez opposes acts of terrorism, and has a long record of supporting swift and certain justice for those who carry out terrorist attacks, including the death penalty. Abel Hernandez and Arnaldo Monzon have contributed to both Democrats and Republicans, including George H.W. Bush, who came to New Jersey to campaign for Tom Kean Jr.” Matthew Miller, a spokesman, added in an interview that Mr. Menendez “believes in the rule of law.” He added: “But at this point there haven’t been any allegations made by any law-enforcement agencies,” against either man.

Still, to those unfamiliar with the nuances of Cuban exile politics, it might seem surprising that Mr. Menendez—a polished performer on the stump who is equally comfortable mixing with rough-and-tumble party operatives in Hudson County and Washington’s governing elite—has been so deeply involved with this particular cast of characters.

The deceased Union City businessman Arnaldo Monzon Plasencia, for example, was accused in June by a former associate of helping plan attacks on Cuba during the 1990’s. Monzon donated $4,000 to Mr. Menendez’s campaigns and served on a steering committee for a group that tried to get Mr. Menendez elected mayor in the 1980’s.

Another Union City business owner, Abel Hernandez, a prominent donor and fund-raiser for Mr. Menendez—who has contributed $8,200 over the years—has been implicated in a fax from 1997 that requested he raise money for bombings in Cuba. He recently appeared before a grand jury in Newark investigating the matter. Mr. Hernandez has denied any knowledge of the fund-raising for the attacks.

And sometimes Mr. Menendez was the one doing the contributing. In the 1980’s, when he was mayor of Union City, he donated an unknown amount to the legal-defense fund for a man, Eduardo Arocena, who had been convicted of murdering a Cuban diplomat in New York and participating in bombing attacks in the region. Mr. Arocena had been described by U.S. authorities as a terrorist.

At the time, Mr. Menendez was quoted in a local newspaper, The Hudson Dispatch, 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.”

Mr. Menendez later denied making the comments, but he didn’t deny helping to raise funds for the man’s legal defense.

In a statement released this week, Mr. Menendez’s campaign continues to say he was misquoted: “Twenty years ago, Bob Menendez went to a community fund-raiser for a legal defense fund. He was misquoted by a local paper, and he immediately said so the day after that story appeared. He made clear then that he opposed acts of terrorism, just as he does now.” The Hudson Dispatch stood by its story, and the author of the article said in an interview this week that the paper did not retract the piece.

Mr. Menendez, a Democrat, has long been a supporter of the hard-line stance against Cuba endorsed by most Republicans. In 1996, he voted for the passage of the Helms-Burton Act, a law that toughened an already-existing trade embargo against Cuba.

Although Mr. Menendez has been cautious in recent years about making open statements of support for violent acts against the Castro regime in Cuba, his supporters with alleged ties to terrorism seem frankly unapologetic about being involved.

Gilberto Garcia, a lawyer representing the suspects who appeared before the grand jury in Newark, said in an interview that the bombings of pro-Castro targets in both Cuba and the U.S. were nothing to apologize for. “Were these acts legitimate?” he asked. “To the Cuban who advocated the demise of Fidel Castro? No doubt.” That said, he claimed his clients had no knowledge of the funding of the attacks in Cuba.

To understand that mind-set, it’s useful to look at the example of Monzon, Mr. Menendez’s old ally from Union City. He was a Cuban exile, a former political prisoner and later the owner of dozens of clothing stores in New Jersey. He was also the co-founder of the Pan American National Bank in Union City. In 1985, he pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of laundering $100,000 through that bank.

He was an early supporter of Mr. Menendez and was identified in 1982 by The Jersey Journal as a member of a steering committee that was seeking to get Mr. Menendez elected mayor. And as a director of the powerful Cuban-American National Foundation, he wielded control in a group that supports hard-line anti-Castro policies. He died in 2000 following complications from prostate cancer; Mr. Menendez appeared at his funeral.

In 1998, the Cuban government accused Monzon of financing exiles from Central America who later carried out a terror campaign in Havana. Some 13 bombings rocked the capital over several months in the 1990’s, and one Italian tourist was killed. Monzon vehemently denied the charges that he had aided the bombings.

At the time, a Spanish-language newspaper asked Mr. Menendez about his relationship with Monzon, to which Mr. Menendez said that “Monzon contributed to my political campaigns and at that level has been my friend.”

But in the past several months, others have implicated Monzon in a deeper role in extremist activities. In June, Jose Antonio Llamas, another former member of the executive board of the Cuban-American National Foundation, declared that he had been a part of a secret paramilitary wing created in the early 90’s within that organization.

For years, the United States government has looked the other way when it came to Cuban terror cases. Just weeks before Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. Department of Justice released from prison two men who had been convicted in the 1976 car-bombing assassination of a Chilean ambassador and an American in Washington, D.C. Pressure from Cuban exile groups helped gain their release.

Cuban-American politicians have never been shy about supporting Cuban extremist groups. In Miami, officials created Orlando Bosch Day, celebrating a man who has been accused of numerous terrorist activities throughout the world. Officials there have written on Congressional letterhead imploring the release of people accused of terrorist acts.

Mr. Menendez, for his part, has had something of a history of flirting with such controversial figures.

In October 1987, when Mr. Menendez was 33 and in his second year as mayor of Union City, he appeared at a legal-defense fund-raiser held for Eduardo Arocena. At the time, Mr. Arocena was sitting in a federal prison, guilty of murder and labeled a terrorist.

In 1984, a federal court convicted Mr. Arocena of murdering a Cuban official, and authorities had identified him as the terrorist leader of a group called Omega 7, a notorious collection of exiles that was headquartered in Union City.

The group had claimed responsibility for a decade-long bombing campaign throughout the United States—their ostensible goal was to attack those whom they saw as providing aid and comfort to Fidel Castro’s Cuba—but their targets included Avery Fisher Hall in New York, the John F. Kennedy International Airport and a pharmacy in Union City, among other locations.

A reporter for the Hudson Dispatch called Mr. Menendez up and asked him about his appearance at the fund-raiser and his apparent support for Mr. Arocena and his activities. In addition to the previously quoted statements—subsequently denied by Mr. Menendez—the article quoted him as saying: “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.”

In a later article, the Dispatch printed previously unreported statements of Mr. Menendez from the interview, including the following: “Asked if Cuban communists should be combated in the U.S., Menendez said the fight should be carried out ‘wherever the enemy may be.’”

Those words, jarring as they may sound today in a post–Sept. 11 world, resonated throughout the Cuban exile community living in Union City and Florida. Mr. Menendez wasn’t alone in his support of Mr. Arocena: Xavier Suarez, the mayor of Miami, was quoted at the time as saying that he “preferred to think of Arocena as a freedom fighter, not a terrorist.”

Mr. Miller, the spokesman, said that Mr. Menendez “repudiates all terrorist actions, including Arocena’s.” Regarding Mr. Menendez’s attendance and donation to the legal fund, Mr. Miller said: “He’s been asked about this before, and he said he regrets going.”

Just ethnic politics, according to Lisandro Perez, a professor of sociology at Florida International University. “I don’t think the explanation is any more complicated than: One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter,” he said.