Congressional travel to Cuba surged last year
BY SUSAN CRABTREE | JANUARY 28, 2015 | 5:00 AM
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
The visits coincide with a furious behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign
from longtime advocates for normalizing relations with Cuba and 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
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 orchestrated 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
"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 is a division of the Center for
International Policy, a research and advocacy think tank founded in 1975
in response to the Vietnam War.
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
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 MoveOn.org 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
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
Stephens says the money for the center's congressional trips come from
the group's general funding and does not earmark certain donations for
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.
Source: Congressional travel to Cuba surged last year |