Out in the World: Gay congressman speaks about Cuba trip

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday December 21, 2022
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Congressmember Troy Caster shakes hands with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel in Havana December 11 as Congressmember Mark Pocan, right, looks on. Photo: Natmine
Congressmember Troy Caster shakes hands with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel in Havana December 11 as Congressmember Mark Pocan, right, looks on. Photo: Natmine

High-ranking gay Congressmember Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin) was among a small delegation that traveled to Cuba earlier this month.

The trip was supported by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by Congressmember Gregory Weldon Meeks (D-New York), and headed by Congressmember Barbara Lee (D-Oakland). Lee is chair of the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. The trip's goal was to continue opening Cuba-U.S. relations [LINK: https://www.cfr.org/timeline/us-cuba-relations] and to address some key issues related to lifting the State Sponsor of Terrorism designation that former President Donald Trump imposed in January 2021, just before he left office.

Only a few countries — North Korea, Iran, and Syria — have such a designation, Pocan noted, stating that Cuba doesn't meet the criteria to be on the list.

Four delegates, including Lee, unexpectedly dropped out of the trip at the last minute for personal reasons. Lee attended the meetings virtually, the Bay Area Reporter was told on background by someone in the administration familiar with the delegation. The small delegation pressed forward after several other attempts to plan the trip fell through earlier this year, Pocan said, speaking with the B.A.R. about the trip.

In a statement to the B.A.R., Lee said her diligent work to convene the congressional delegation to Cuba was productive. The delegates discussed U.S.-Cuba policy and "the ways in which we can uplift the needs of the Cuban people and normalize U.S.-Cuba relations," she stated.

"The trip was productive and informative, and the committee will use what was learned to inform the future of U.S.-Cuba policy," she stated, adding the group met with as many communities as possible during the December 9-12 trip.

The three delegates — Pocan and Congressmembers Troy Carter (D-Louisiana) and James McGovern (D-Massachusetts) — flew to Havana, Cuba's capital. There, they met with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, leaders in Cuba's congress and its foreign minister, and visited the U.S. Embassy, reported the Associated Press.

Members of the Biden administration have also visited Cuba in recent months to resume former President Barack Obama's efforts to open Cuba-U.S. relations, particularly around migration, reported the AP.

"We had a very thorough trip," Pocan said. "We met with people over the new entrepreneurial law, which could really have a big impact. But again, with the sanctions and the State Sponsor of Terrorism designation, it doesn't. It's not working, I think we all would like to see it work."

Last year, the Cuban government passed a law allowing for the establishment of small- and medium-sized businesses, including micro businesses of up to 10 employees; small businesses of 11 to 35 employees, and medium-sized businesses of 36 to 100 employees, according to Latina Republic.

Repairing Cuba-US relations

Biden made a campaign pledge to reverse Trump's policies and reinstate Obama-era Cuba policies. Trump had called for tougher restrictions on travel and business during his term in office.

Pocan noted that Biden's "priority list has been long," talking about the president's "robust domestic agenda" along with the aftermath of withdrawing from Afghanistan and Russian President Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine.

"I think, rather than a lack of wanting to do something in Cuba, it was just the priority list has been long," he said. "I think we've decided that it's time to try to up this on that list."

Since May, the Biden administration has lifted some of the Trump-era policies against Cuba, but much work remains, according to the Washington Office on Latin America.

Pocan stated, "The economic conditions are pretty dire right now in Cuba," and the recent wave of Cuban migration is largely caused by the U.S. blockade due to the state terrorism designation.

This year, the U.S. saw one of the largest waves of Cuban migration in history. Approximately 2% of Cuba's total population of 11.23 million people, nearly 233,000, have sought to immigrate to the U.S. They have come to the Florida coast as well as the U.S.-Mexico border due to Cuba's economic crisis, the pandemic, and social discontent. Boats filled with Cubans reaching the Florida coast almost evoke memories of 1980 when the late former Cuban President Fidel Castro initiated the Mariel Boatlift that caused a flood of Cuban migrants to come to the U.S.

"The numbers that we're seeing from Cuba, that's still going to be overwhelming," Pocan said. "That is going to create even more of a burden and probably have ripple effects with other refugees."

Cuba's current economic crisis has been exacerbated by the U.S. sanctions and the pandemic that prompted major anti-government protests in July 2021 and again in October, reported Reuters.

Cuban authorities cracked down on the peaceful protesters. They arrested and imprisoned an estimated 670 people, according to the Washington Office on Latin America. One of those arrested was gay journalist Yoan de la Cruz, who received a six-year sentence for livestreaming the demonstrations, reported the Washington Blade. De La Cruz served 10 months in prison. He was released in May.

De La Cruz wasn't the only journalist swept up by authorities, Pocan noted, pointing out that Cuba's response to the protesters made it challenging to relax U.S. embargoes.

"There was a lot of civil disruption over that. They arrested a lot of people with pretty strong harsh sentences for simple dissent," he said, stressing that the delegation attempted to get across to Cuban officials that how they handled the demonstrators made it "harder for us to get the United States to change policies."

Pocan recalled that 114 members of Congress expressed a desire to relieve some of the U.S. sanctions against Cuba "because of the problems it's causing for the Cuban people."

Biden also expressed concern in a December 10 statement marking Human Rights Day. He called for Cuba's government to release hundreds of protesters who have been political prisoners since their arrests in July 2021.

"In the face of oppression, these protesters bravely exercised their fundamental freedoms, including the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly," said Biden. "The United States stands with the Cuban people as they stand up for their human rights and a say in the future of Cuba.

"We will continue to advocate for the release of all who were imprisoned in this brutal crackdown, and continue holding accountable Cuban officials responsible for violence against peaceful protests," he said.

However, Pocan noted, "a lot of those folks that care about the Cuban people for humanitarian purposes also care about civil unrest and the political prisoners and the sentences they were given," Pocan said. "We really did try to stress that that is an important issue that they need to revisit so that we can more comprehensively revisit U.S. policy toward Cuba."

Many families have complained that they weren't allowed to see their relatives who were imprisoned due to protesting the government. The delegation was going to meet with Cuban LGBTQ activists, but they met with some political prisoners' family members instead, Pocan said.

Hope

However, Pocan was hopeful that the tide is turning for Cubans. Earlier this year, Cuba ushered in marriage equality along with other legal protections for LGBTQ Cubans.

In May, the Biden administration resumed flights to multiple Cuban destinations, people-to-people and other educational and professional travel programs, and family reunification programs. The administration eased remittances, supported Cuban entrepreneurs, and had conversations about handling migration along with ongoing dialogue between the two countries.

"The changes that were put forth by the Obama administration, they were having really positive impacts for relations with Cuba for the Cuban people and their ability to live and thrive," Pocan said, pointing out that Trump placing Cuba back on the terrorism list "cheapened" the list and had a devastating impact on Cubans in commerce and humanitarian aid, to name just two areas.

Additionally, Pocan said Trump-era policies on immigration and the decimation of the U.S.'s asylum and refugee programs make conversations about managing Cuba's migration along with other asylum, refugee, immigration, and border control issues challenging.

"Many of them are still drinking the Kool-Aid of the Trump administration," Pocan said, stating Democrats are waiting to see how politics in the House shape up under Republican control in January. "It's difficult to have any kind of commonsense policies right now because of the political environment created by Donald Trump," he observed.

Despite the upcoming changes to congressional control, Pocan said it's time for the Biden administration to move forward on Cuba by lifting the terrorism designation and improving relations while continuing to hold Cuba accountable for political prisoners.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or oitwnews@gmail.com

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