The Miami Herald
January 14, 1997

Congressional travelers are attracted to Cuba

Nearly two dozen visited island in '96


Herald Staff Writer

WASHINGTON-Official and sanctioned congressional trips to Havana are largely taboo, off-limits as politically incorrect in this era of isolating Fidel Castro's Cuba, right?


Nearly two dozen members of Congress or their staff visited the island last year in a hodgepodge of fact-finding missions mostly paid for by outside groups to give Congress a first-hand look at the embargoed nation.

Most trips were sponsored by think-tanks and advocacy groups at odds with the Helms-Burton legislation and reflect the larger diplomatic debate-in Congress as well as the world at large-over whether isolation or strategic economic engagement is the best way to promote democracy in Cuba.

"When I got off the plane I said, 'Wow, I'm back in the 1950s,' '' said recently retired Republican Rep. Toby Roth of Wisconsin. During a December tour, one of his final acts in the House, Roth found Havana's infrastructure and mentality trapped in a bygone time.

While there on a five-day tour, he and other past and present members of Congress concluded that America must re-examine its longstanding policies. ``Cuba is a child in our family,'' Roth said. ``We have to bring them along.''

Quit in protest

One trip caused such a furor last week that Florida's two Republican Cuban-American Congress members from Dade County-Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen-quit the House Hispanic Caucus in protest.

It left the caucus, which is chaired by California Democrat Rep. Xavier Becerra, a Los Angeles Latino, bereft of Republican representation.

Diaz-Balart said the congressman's trip "to meet with the Cuban tyrant'' while Becerra was campaigning for caucus chairman "manifested a gross insensitivity toward the pain of all who have been victims of the Cuban tyranny.''

A Herald review of public disclosure forms, required from members of Congress and their staff for the first time in 1996, found that eight House members traveled to Cuba for fact-finding tours. Twelve Congress members, more than half of them senators, sent representatives throughout the year. Six were sent by Republicans.

Compared to the big-ticket trips reported in the disclosure forms under House and Senate Ethics rules, to Taiwan and Israel, for example, the sums they spent were small.

The single most expensive trip, a Feb. 11-17 Human Rights Project expedition taken by James Casso, chief of staff for California Rep. Esteban Torres, a Democrat, cost $3,500. His reported purpose: "To investigate the human rights situation in Cuba.''

Cheapest trip

The cheapest trip reported was a Feb. 9-10 run by New Mexico Democratic Rep. Bill Richardson's administrative assistant, Isabelle Watkins. She filed a disclosure form describing the trip as free-no transportation costs, no lodging, no meals. Richardson is President Clinton's choice to succeed Madeleine Albright as U.N. ambassador. He faces confirmation hearings, perhaps later this month, by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms, an outspoken Castro foe and author of some of the toughest Cuba-isolating legislation ever passed by Congress.

Because of the confirmation hearings, Richardson's spokesman, Stuart Nagurka, said the congressman's office was refusing to entertain questions about that Watkins trip, which she made with Richardson, and a Jan. 17-20 mission by Richardson and a House committee staff member.

On that trip, Richardson -- a Hispanic -- met Castro.

In both instances, Richardson traveled as a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence and flew on military aircraft for the trips.

Richardson's office was by far the most involved in trips to and from the island, once securing the release of three political prisoners just weeks after he sent a legislative assistant on an "educational'' four-day trip.

Why they go

Why do member and their staff go there?

To meet government supporters and dissidents, to investigate the economic impact of America's economic embargo and to perhaps talk to Castro.

Critics complain that missions to the island confer credibility on the Castro regime.

Sponsors argue that isolation will not encourage Castro to change.

Too many trips are by people "going down there for a photo op with Fidel Castro to burnish your 'radical chic' credentials,'' said Jose Cardenas of the Cuban American National Foundation.

So what would Cardenas' consider a favorable trip?

He cited a mission several years ago by Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, who characterized conditions "as bad as he ever saw in Eastern Europe.''

Becerra wrote in his disclosure form of his Dec. 5-10 trip that he had gone there ``to study the impact of Helms-Burton and the effects of the embargo on supplies of food and medicine.''

The trip was sponsored by a Los Angeles-based pro-democracy group called the Southwest Voter Research Institute, which picked up his $1,800 tab.

So controversial was the trip that Becerra's offices in both Washington and Los Angeles refused to return telephone calls discussing his motives in making it.

Becerra traveled with fellow California Democrat Torres, whose spokesman said the congressman was going to not comment on the trip for a while.

What do the representatives and their staff members do there?

Fact-finding fodder

Routine foreign fact-finding fodder: City visits to get a better picture of Cuba's battered infrastructure and U.S-blockaded economy; meetings with third-country foreign diplomats, government officials and sometimes Castro himself; efforts to elude official surveillance long enough to meet with dissidents, who are usually under surveillance; and meetings with religious leaders.

Day 2 of the recent Dec. 9-14 mission by Wisconsin's Roth and Republican Rep. Jon Christensen of Nebraska, along with three former House members and retired three-term Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona provided a case-in-point:

They had a roundtable with members of the National Assembly, chaired by a Cuban journalist; met separately with the U.S. Interest Section, two government ministers and the Canadian ambassador; visited a grade school, health clinic and blood donation center and finished the day with ``dinner at a Hemingway favorite -- Bodeguita del Medio.''

Another example was last January's four-day trip sponsored by the Washington-based Center for International Policy, which used more than $12,000 in MacArthur Foundation funds to take staffers of key Senate and House members on a mission aimed at educating Congress on the need for more dialogue with Cuba, said executive-director Bill Goodfellow.

"People on the Hill, you know, are afraid to say anything because they fear the political power of the Miami Cubans, particularly the Cuban American National Foundation,'' Goodfellow said.

Dialogue sought

"We are hardly enamored of the Castro government,'' he said. ``But we believe that we need political space, a soft landing and to have an easy transition you need to begin a dialogue and to educate people.''

During the trip-which included Dick Day, a senior immigration committee adviser to Wisconsin Sen. Alan Simpson, a Republican-congressional staff members met with Castro. Goodfellow called Castro ``a charmer, but I think all of them came away realizing what a joke the Cubans claim of having their own brand of democracy.''

Copyright © 1997