Sunday, January 31, 2016

10 N.J. legislators in center of storm over unauthorized trip to Cuba

10 N.J. legislators in center of storm over unauthorized trip to Cuba
on January 30, 2016 at 3:45 PM, updated January 31, 2016 at 2:22 AM

TRENTON — Angry Cuban exiles in New Jersey are demanding state Assembly
Speaker Vincent Prieto condemn a trip 10 state lawmakers quietly made to
Cuba this week, an action they say legitimizes that government's
oppressive regime.

Woodcliff Lake Mayor Carlos Rendo said Friday that American tourism
"props up a murderous regime with every penny they spend in Cuba."

"I would like to see every Cuban American legislator come out strongly
and condemn this trip," said Rendo, who was born in the communist country.

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Prieto (D-Hudson), who fled the island with his mother when he was 10
years old, told NJ Advance Media he was reluctant to criticize his
colleagues for making the trip on their own time. But he wanted to be
clear they did not go representing the state.

"I did not sanction the trip," Prieto said. "They never went as a
delegation representing the Assembly of New Jersey."

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), said he and the nine other
legislators had good reason to make the four-day trip that ended Friday.

"After Obama said he wanted to ease the (diplomatic) restrictions, we
wanted to see for ourselves what Cuba is all about," Gusciora told NJ
Advance Media Saturday. "We wanted to see how we can make things better
in both of our countries."

Gusciora said it isn't fair for anyone to implicate Prieto. Everyone
paid their own way and made arrangements directly with the tour company
run by the Cuban government, he stressed. The trip cost $2,000, he said.

"It's disappointing some people in the Cuban-American community want to
stifle our rights of free speech and free association," he said.

Besides Gusciora, the lawmakers on the trip included Assemblymen Gordon
Johnson (D-Bergen), Tim Eustace (D-Bergen), Paul Moriarity
(D-Gloucester), John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester), Assemblywomen Holly
Schepisi (R-Bergen), Cleopatra Tucker (D-Essex), and Sheila Oliver
(D-Essex), and state Sens. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) and Nia Gill (D-Essex).

The Senate Majority Office "did not pay for the trip, nor did it make
arrangements," spokesman Luke Margolis said.

Prieto said that in December, Johnson asked whether the Assembly
Majority Office would pay for the trip. The speaker said he refused. He
said on Friday that he learned that the lawmakers had actually made the
trip from Rendo and other Cuban leaders who saw a story about it in a
government-owned news website, Diario de Cuba on Thursday.

Like other Cuban-American leaders who have been critical of the Obama
administration's decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with
Cuba, Prieto said he explained to Johnson he did not want to do anything
that could be perceived as supportive of the Castro government, which
unilaterally seized property and jobs and jailed dissidents in 1959.

"For me it's an emotional thing because I lived it," Prieto said.

"In a a three-day trip, you will not be able to understand the struggles
of the people," he added.

Cuba's decision to continue harboring fugitive Joanne Chesimard is
another reason he could not sanction the visit, Prieto said. Chesimard
broke out of prison in 1979 after she was convicted in the shooting
death of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster in 1973.

While he isn't pleased by the trip, Prieto said he was stopping short of
condemning it.

"As I said I would not authorize them going as a delegation but I cannot
say anything about them going as U.S. citizens. That is one of the
freedoms we have here that is not available to the Cubans in Cuba."

During the trip, the New Jersey lawmakers repeatedly pushed Cuban
officials to turn over Chesimard and other American fugitives, Gusciora
said. "They seemed to ignore it," he said.

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The Diario de Cuba article described a meeting Wednesday between members
of the National Assembly of People's Power with an unidentified number
of New Jersey lawmakers.

The article said Gusciora criticized "the position of the Cuban exile
sectors and said it was 'one of the main problems that threaten the
normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States.' "

Gusciora said he was misquoted and his comment was taken out of context.
"I asked, what would you like us to tell the Cuban-Americans who would
not want us here?"

Cuban Deputy Lazaro Barredo told the lawmakers the United States would
have to lift economic embargo and return the territory occupied by the
Guantanamo Naval Base before Cuba agrees to normalize relations,
according to the article.

"I said that was above our pay scale. How about we give them back Ted
Cruz and call it a day? They laughed at that," Gusciora said, referring
to the Republican U.S. Senator from Texas who is running for president.

Gusciora said the lawmakers were accompanied on the trip by Newark
school board member Antoinette Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, a
federal judge, two Cuban American restauranteurs, Jay Redd, lobbyist
from the high-profile firm Gibbons, and a student from The College of
New Jersey.

Lawmakers also challenged the Cuban government's poor record of
respecting the rights of its gay and lesbian citizens, Gusciora said. An
artist he met told him there have been modest changes on that front. The
government doesn't jail gays and lesbians anymore. President Raul
Castro's daughter, Mariela, led a gay pride parade last year and openly
advocates for the LGBT community.

Other states such as New York and Arkansas have sent their governors and
legislators to Cuba to explore economic opportunities and New Jersey
should do the same, Gusciora said. The medical school accepts students
from across the globe for free and the advances in treating diabetes and
prostate cancer are documented, he noted.

"We have had this policy (the embargo) for 50 years and it hasn't
worked. It has not brought the Castros to their knees," Gusciora said,
who was stunned by the evidence of "abject poverty everywhere. "It has
hurt the average Cuban."

Rendo called the trip "a direct insult to the Cuban exile community"
where he grew up in Union City.

Sergio Gatria of Guttenberg, director of the anti-Castro Cuban
Information Center, said the lawmakers "were used, as part of the

Based on monthly reports from inside the country, "The oppression in
Cuba is worse now," Gatria added.

An earlier version of this story misidentified the county in which
Assemblyman John Burzichelli lives. He is a Democrat from Gloucester County.

Source: 10 N.J. legislators in center of storm over unauthorized trip to
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