SALAMÁ, GUATEMALA – Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) spent two and a half days here this week as part of a medical mission of roughly 70 surgeons, nurses, technicians and volunteers who shared the goal of conducting nearly 200 cataract surgeries and distributing nearly 8,000 pairs of eyeglasses.
It was an unprecedented trip – never before has a U.S. senator and potential future presidential candidate traveled so elaborately to a third world country as part of a medical mission.
(Read more about the trip here.)
An ophthalmologist by training who practiced in Bowling Green, Ky. before winning his Senate seat in 2010, Paul was one of several surgeons to perform free cataract surgery for hundreds of patients at a Lion’s Club eye clinic on the outskirts of the city -- a striking way to cast Paul apart from other Republican politicians who may one day seek to run for president.
The trip was organized and sponsored by the John A. Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah, which has an international outreach division conducting similar missions in several countries across Africa and Asia; the Hope Alliance, a Park City, Utah-based organization, whose dozens of volunteers distributed approximately 8,000 pairs of eyeglasses to local residents; and the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery, which represents thousands of the world’s top eye surgeons. Paul paid his own way and had asked several political donors, including Donald Trump, to help pay for the travel.
Despite spending hours in an operating room this week, Paul said he had seen news reports of ongoing violence in Ferguson, Mo., a city still reeling from the shooting death of 18-year old Michael Brown. Before traveling to Guatemala, He published an op-ed in TIME Magazine critical of the police response, an essay that was widely praised as a blunt assessment of the situation and a criticism of the militarization of tiny local police forces.
Paul said that the situation remained primarily a local law enforcement matter.
“I don’t fault the police for trying to stop looting. That is their job, it is a tough job,” he said. “But you know, an important part of America is dissent and if people disagree they should be allowed to voice their dissent. If they think this unarmed kid was shot and it was unfair, they should be allowed to hold signs and yell at the police all they want. And without fear of being shot with tear gas, or pushed out of the way.”
Paul also reiterated long-held concerns that the federal government has been too generous in doling out homeland security grants to smaller police forces in recent years, including extra funding to protect local events or for military equipment once used in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“It’s a big waste of money. The biggest earmark in our country that’s left is all these Homeland Security earmarks,” he said. “For years, Indiana had 7,000 requests for earmarks for homeland security, including security for the Popcorn Festival, the Mule Day Festival in these little towns of 500. And they get them. It’s another source of federal money. It also demeans something that we really need to do which is protect our big cities and capital from terrorism.”
As Paul left for Guatemala last weekend, Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry, another potential 2016 presidential contender, was indicted by a grand jury on charges he abused his office and tried to coerce an elected official to resign. Despite past differences with Perry – most recently on military operations in Iraq – Paul sought to defend the governor against what he considers politically-motivated charges.
“You know, Travis County has a history of politically-motivated stuff,” he said of the county prosecutor’s office that sought Perry’s indictment. “They did it to [former House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay as well. I haven’t really read that much about it other than to think that you could be indicted for doing a veto? I don’t know how that could even pass the laugh test, really.”
Paul traveled to Guatemala this week with three aides, his 18-year-old son, Duncan, his niece Lisa Paul, and reporters from The Washington Post, NBC News, the Christian Broadcasting Network and conservative outlets the National Review and Breitbart.com. Aides said they had fielded more than three dozen requests from news organizations eager to join the trip, including all three major television networks, the cable news channels and dozens of newspapers and magazines.
No restrictions were placed on reporters traveling with Paul – until they arrived in Guatemala.
Ahead of the trip, journalists had been promised that they would be able to file reports in real time, and use social media to document the senator’s work. Once they arrived, however, Paul’s aides told the media – and the doctors, nurses and other volunteers on the medical mission – that real-time use of social media would be banned due to unspecified security concerns. Anyone who broke the rules would be kicked off the trip.
It was unclear whether orders for a blackout had been issued by U.S. or Guatemalan officials, and aides declined to say who issued the orders. For a senator who is prolific on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, the blackout meant that his aides couldn’t transmit images or write blog items to distribute to supporters as planned.
Paul departed Salamá Wednesday afternoon ahead of a scheduled visit with Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina on Wednesday night in Guatemala City. He was scheduled to leave Guatemala by plane on Thursday morning.
On Monday, Paul is scheduled to make a stop in South Carolina before political travel later in the week to Texas.
The senator and his aides insisted again this week that no decision about a possible presidential campaign will be made until 2015. He admitted, however, that his family still isn’t entirely sold on the idea of a possible presidential campaign.
“I think sometimes the kids don’t like it, they’d rather be seen just as for themselves,” he said. “As far as when I’m here, having at least one kid with me, I don’t feel like I’m guilty because I’m spending time away. In fact, I wanted to bring my wife, but she’s getting my other sons starting in school. We planned on all coming.”
He prefers to travel with his wife, Kelley, when he can, he said. If she can tag along, he said his aides know that “they don’t hear me complaining and bitching too much.”