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Lawmakers Split Regarding Obama’s Upcoming Trip to Cuba

Vintage cars lining a street in Havana caught Sen. Patrick Leahy’s eye January 2015 during a congressional trip. (Patrick Leahy/Instagram)

President Barack Obama is inviting several senators and House members to join a historic visit to Cuba later this month, a White House official told Roll Call on Monday. Details on which lawmakers are being invited and their travel schedules were not immediately available.  

When he steps foot on Cuban soil during the week of March 20,  Obama will become the first commander in chief to do so since Calvin Coolidge visited in 1928. The diplomatic mission marks the latest step in the president's campaign to normalize relations with the communist enclave, outreach efforts he outlined in December 2014.

“It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse. We know from hard-learned experience that it is better to encourage and support reform than to impose policies that will render a country a failed state," the White House argues on its “Charting a New Course on Cuba ” portal.  

Obama has said he intends to rollback existing travel restrictions, ease trade sanctions and resume communication with the former Cold War rival before leaving office.  

   

Sen. Jeff Flake has accepted President Barack Obama's invitation travel with him to Cuba, the senator announced late Monday.  

Aides to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy told Roll Call the Vermont Democrat is confirmed to join Obama later this month; it will be the seventh time Leahy has traveled to Cuba throughout his career, trips that have included meetings with revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and current Cuban President Raúl Castro.  

The most historic voyage to date has to be flying to Havana in December 2014 with Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., to bring home Alan Gross, an American who spent five years in Cuban prisons for purportedly undermining the government.

Leahy twice met with the jailed Gross and asked Pope Francis to intercede on the political prisoner’s behalf. (The pontiff did.)  

Another senator, Jerry Moran, R-Kan., was among the group invited to join Obama in Cuba, but declined due to a conflict in his schedule, an aide told Roll Call.  

   

“One of my Havana street scene photos from my most recent congressional mission to Cuba in January.” (Patrick Leahy/Instagram)

“One of my Havana street scene photos from my most recent congressional mission to Cuba in January.” (Patrick Leahy/Instagram)

Building bridges between the two countries is something Rep. Barbara Lee has been advocating for since the late 1970s.  

In addition to proposing laws repealing the decades-old trade embargo and others opening up travel routes, Lee has investigated how medical technology developed by Cuban doctors could benefit Americans dealing with metabolic disorders. “The most uplifting part of my trips to Cuba has been meeting the Cuban people and witnessing the opportunities to bring Cuba’s many medical advances to the U.S., advances that will help Americans living with terrible diseases like diabetes and diabetic foot ulcers,” Lee said.  

Some lawmakers remain firmly against cutting the Castro brothers any slack.  

“It is totally unacceptable for the President of the United States to reward a dictatorial regime with an historic visit when human rights abuses endure and democracy continues to be shunned,” Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and son of Cuban immigrants declared Feb. 18 in a blistering news release.  

According to Menendez, the nearly 2,500 political arrests perpetrated by Cuban officials just this winter and the continued harboring of fugitives such as Joanne Chesimard — a former member of the Black Liberation Army convicted in the 1973 shooting of a New Jersey state trooper — warrant continued pressure on Cuba now more than ever.  

“The President is — again — prioritizing short-term economic interests over long-term and enduring American values,” Menendez charged, adding, “In the case of Cuba, we should at the very least expect Joanne Chesimard to step off Air Force One with U.S. marshals.”  

(Patrick Leahy/Instagram)

(Patrick Leahy/Instagram)

Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, R-Ga., who visited Cuba last year, said he was concerned about Havana's treatment of religious institutions. "We visited with a spokesman for the Cardinal of Havana where he shared with us his experiences with the Roman Catholic Church and the Cuban government,” Carter related. “Although he would not say that the Church had ever been censored by the Cuban government, he was clear that certain actions by the government, such as substandard access to the Internet and the lack of a copier that could produce more than one copy at a time, were impediments to the Church’s work.”  

Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., who accompanied Carter on the trip arranged by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, put the onus on Cubans to help strengthen ties.  

“[Cubans] have strong individual drive and desire to improve both personally and as a country. They just aren’t quite sure what to do to get there,” Byrne said.  

Staff writer Niels Lesniewski contributed. Contact Rojas at warrenrojas@rollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @WARojas . See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. NEW! Download the Roll Call app for the best coverage of people, politics and personalities of Capitol Hill.