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    Congressional travel to Cuba surged last year

    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
    Castro regime.

    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
    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 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
    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

    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.

    Source: Congressional travel to Cuba surged last year | –