In Havana, Pelosi delegation promotes Obama’s Cuba thaw

U.S. House of Representatives Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi talks, flanked by Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Rep. Eliot Engel during a news conference in Havana Thursday. (Enrique De La Osa/Reuters)

Nick Miroff  |  Washington Post  |  February 19, 2015

HAVANA — House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and a delegation of congressional Democrats concluded a three-day trip to Cuba this week by heaping praise on President Obama’s attempt to mend relations with the island but offering few details about their meetings with high-level Cuban officials.After addressing reporters Thursday on the back patio of a U.S. diplomat’s residence, Pelosi ­(D-Calif.) and the eight other members of the delegation departed for an appointment with First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, in what was believed to be the first official meeting between U.S. politicians and the man designated to succeed 83-year-old Raúl Castro.

Pelosi said that the purpose of their trip was to gauge Cubans’ reactions to Obama’s moves and that they had perceived “great enthusiasm” among the Cubans they spoke with.

“We’re proud of our president’s decision to move forward and change our policy,” she said.

The group was scheduled to depart the island after meeting with Díaz-Canel, 54, who is due to take over Cuba’s one-party Communist government in 2018, when Castro has said he will step down.

Pelosi’s group was the first official House delegation to visit Cuba since Obama and Castro simultaneously announced Dec. 17 that the countries would reestablish diplomatic relations that were severed by Washington in 1961.

But coming immediately after a visit by Democratic Sens. Mark R. Warner (Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), the group is just one of several congressional delegations whose members seem eager to engage in tropical diplomacy while ducking the brutal cold in Washington. A group of Republican lawmakers led by Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) is also planning a visit.

The Pelosi delegation’s trip comes as some of the initial enthusiasm for the Cuba thaw has given way to more sober realizations that the two countries remain far apart on many issues — including some of the nuts-and-bolts elements related to the reopening of embassies in both capitals.

Cuban authorities have criticized Obama in recent weeks for not going further to lift trade and travel restrictions. They say truly normal relations between the countries won’t be possible until the long-standing trade embargo is gone and the United States returns the land occupied by the Guantanamo Bay naval station, among other historical grievances.

Pelosi said the group met for extensive talks with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez and with Josefina Vidal, the Cuban diplomat who led last month’s opening round of negotiations with Obama officials. Those talks will resume in Washington next week.

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The delegation did not meet with any of Cuba’s leading dissidents, according to a U.S. official.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), a member of the delegation, said the lawmakers broached the topic of human rights in their discussions with Cuban officials.

“We’re very concerned with human rights and dissident rights,” Engel said. “I’d like to see more changes from the Cuban side.”

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