Congressional travel to Cuba surged last year

Travel by members of Congress to Cuba shot up last year ahead of President Obama’s December executive action normalizing relations with the island nation.

Thirteen Democratic House members traveled to Havana in 2014 on at least three separate trips sponsored by nonprofit outside groups, according to travel reports members are required to file with the House Ethics Committee.

One of the trips, in which at least seven lawmakers participated, ended just one day before Obama’s Dec. 17 announcement of a détente with the Castro regime.

The visits coincide with a furious behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign from longtime advocates for normalizing relations with Cuba pressing Obama last year that the time was right to make a bold move and ease sanctions and lift travel restrictions.

The surge in members’ Cuban travel in 2014 is striking when compared to just one member making the trip in 2012, and just five staffers and no members who paid a visit in 2013. House members’ participation fluctuated from five visiting Cuba in 2011 to two in 2010, although several staffers visited those years.

It is unclear how many senators also made the short flight from Miami or Tampa to the island nation. Senate rules, unlike the House, don’t require reports to be as detailed.

In the years leading up to Obama’s December announcement reversing 50 years of U.S. policy in Cuba, the State Department didn’t sponsor any trips to the island, so outside groups supporting re-engagement with Cuba filled the void and sponsored the travel.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas, a nonprofit that advocates for opening diplomatic relations with both Cuba and Venezuela, and closer bonds with several countries in Latin America, has sponsored the most travel since 2007, according to the latest records posted online.

“We really do believe that engagement is the answer — how you get a conversation going and open up,” said Sara Stephens, the center’s executive director, who has led dozens of congressional trips to Cuba over the last 15 years.

“Do we believe it’s going to change Cuba’s policies tomorrow? No. But we hope it exposes them to new ideas and vice versa.”

While she said the number of visits the group sponsors each year fluctuates depending on Washington’s Cuba policies at the time, she said 2014 was a very big year in response to a renewed push to open relations.

Stephens also reports an explosion in congressional interest in the trips over the last month after Obama’s decision to re-engage and ease Cuba sanctions.

The center already plans another Cuba visit for senators in February led by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

Last year, she said several Senate chiefs of staff traveled with her to Cuba, including those from the offices of GOP Sens. Jerry Moran of Kansas, Dan Coats of Indiana and Orrin Hatch of Utah.

Stephens is currently reaching out to more Republican members to encourage them to join in this year to talk to Cubans in person and gain first-hand experience of the U.S. policy shifts.

“We’re really especially focused on inviting Republicans and newer, younger members to Cuba now in this new context and new policies to see what they think about it,” she said.

Other members of Congress who vigorously oppose Obama’s decision to ease relations with Cuba have long argued against lawmakers’ travel to Cuba for trips she said are orchestrated at least in part by the Castro regime.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a Cuban-American, has slammed Americans who visit Cuba, including some of his House and Senate colleagues, arguing that they are helping perpetuate Castro’s false claims and bolster his government.

“Cuba is not a zoo where you pay an admission ticket and you go in and you get to watch people living in cages to see how they are suffering,” Rubio reportedly told a pro-Cuba political action committee in 2013. “Cuba is not a field trip. I don’t take that stuff lightly.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., a Cuban-American who has spent more than two decades fighting the Castro regime in Congress, is equally adamant about what she views as the fallacy of lawmakers’ “fact-finding” trips to Havana.

“The Castro regime puts on a Potemkin village sham tour for visiting dignitaries,” she told the Washington Examiner. “Visitors are allowed to arrange a few meetings on their own, but the communist regime knows of such meetings and usually has spies ‘helping’ the delegation who report back to Castro.”

She urged U.S. dignitaries and others to remember that Castro represents a “murderous regime that denies human rights to 11 million people and jails those who try to express their right to free speech.”

She also pointed out that human rights activists, such as Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and former Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., have been routinely denied entry to Cuba because “they would have highlighted the abuses perpetrated by the regime.”

The Center for Democracy in the Americas has ties to the Center for International Policy, a research and advocacy think tank founded in 1975 in response to the Vietnam War. Stephens previously worked at the CIP and launched its Freedom to Travel to Cuba program and ran its Congressional trips, and their boards share an advisor in Philip Brenner, an American University professor and associate dean of the School of International Service.

The center’s mission, according to its website, is to advocate policies that “advance international cooperation, demilitarization, respect for human rights and action to alleviate climate change and stop illicit financial flows.”

It is also affiliated with several other projects, including Win Without War, a coalition of 40 organizations, including groups opposed to unilateral U.S. military responses throughout the world such as Greenpeace and and the National Organization for Women.

Wayne Smith, a Johns Hopkins University professor who served as President Jimmy Carter’s top U.S. diplomat in Havana from 1979 to 1982, joined CIP to start its Cuba policy program and remains a senior fellow at the organization. He is one of Washington’s leading critics of the longstanding U.S. embargo on Cuba.

During a trip the Center for Democracy in the Americas sponsored in May of last year, lawmakers met with Alan Gross, the former U.S. AID contractor, at the hospital where he was serving his sentence, according to an itinerary submitted to the Ethics Committee for approval.

The center noted that it was an “official meeting, organized by the Cuban Foreign Ministry.”

They also had breakfast with European Union ambassadors to Cuba and other foreign diplomats to discuss their countries’ approaches to Cuba, and lunched with Cuba’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez.

During one night, the group dined with an owner of a “paladar,” or private restaurant operated out of the owners’ home, what the center described as the largest and fastest-growing parts of Cuba’s “booming private sector.”

The three-day tour included a walk through Old Havana, where members could converse with vendors selling art, music and books, as well as lunch with Tom Palaia, the U.S.’s current top diplomat in Cuba. They visited artists and students’ homes and spoke about their challenges and the changing economy and its impact on their businesses.

Another major sponsor of congressional travel to Cuba last year is Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba, or MEDICC, an Oakland, Calif.-based group that works “to enhance cooperation among the U.S., Cuban and global health communities” and to share medical advancements, according to its website.

In fact, MEDICC sponsored a trip to Cuba for seven House members that focused on innovations developed in the island to help diabetics. The trip ended Dec. 16, just one day before Obama’s big Cuba executive action.

A spokeswoman said MEDICC’s executive director was out of the office and unavailable Tuesday. She said the group has contributed to the diplomatic opening between the two countries by “showing the benefits of mutual U.S.-Cuba cooperation in the specific field of health and medicine.”

All but two of the members traveling to Cuba over the last three years are Democrats, many of whom vocally support lifting the embargo or travel and trade restrictions.

Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois is the only Republican to travel there during that time frame, which he did in 2012, and Rep. Betty McCollum, a member of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party who caucuses with the Democrats, went last summer.

McCollum has pushed to end the trade embargo since coming to Congress in 2001. She also has sponsored a bill that would end U.S. taxpayer funding for Radio and Television Marti, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars broadcasting news in Spanish from Florida to Cuba.

Other frequent Cuba flyers include Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who visited the island three times last year, and Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., who went twice last year.

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who has repeatedly introduced a series of bills to end travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba, was in Havana Dec. 17 when Obama made his announcement, having lingered there on the MEDICC-sponsored visit.

In applying to the House Ethics Committee to sponsor any travel, an outside group must certify that the visit will not be financed in whole or in part by a registered federal lobbyist or an agent of a foreign government.

Stephens says the money for the center’s congressional trips come from the group’s general funding and does not earmark certain donations for the travel.

She said the center receives roughly two-thirds of its funds from private foundations, including the Ford Foundation, the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, the Open Society Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies. The other third comes from private donations, she said.

By Susan Crabtree, Washington Examiner

January 28, 2015

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