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Al Kamen's In the Loop: HUD chiefs fly to Rio for conference

By Al Kamen
Wednesday, March 17, 2010; A19

Know anything about housing? Ever live in a city? Well, get those bags packed, pronto! You can join Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan and Deputy Secretary Ronald Sims, plus three assistant secretaries and aides -- 14 HUD people in all. They will be joined by 20 officials from other government agencies for a spectacular weeklong event in, yes, RIO!

No, it's not Carnaval. That was a few weeks ago. Three HUD advance people are down there helping to prepare for the mammoth United Nations World Urban Forum, the world's biggest meeting on cities. Some 16,000 folks are signed up. Don't delay. Online registration ends Thursday. The formal sessions begin Monday and end Friday.

We're told it is somewhat unusual for the secretary and the deputy to be out of the country together, but Donovan, who is taking his family along, will be at the earlier part of the conclave so he can then enjoy a couple of days of vacation time. Sims, also taking his spouse, will be on hand for the latter part.

Former president Bill Clinton is going to be there, along with heads of state from Uganda, Bahrain and the Philippines, a U.N.-Habitat announcement says. "They will be joined by mayors, business and industry leaders from every continent, and many of the world's leading urban movers and shakers."

And what better place to move and shake than Rio de Janeiro? Better still, because the government's paying your lodging and meals -- although the max is $363 a day (spouses pay their own way) -- you'll be able to party late. Yes, there are meetings you'll have to attend, panels to be on. There's probably a trip to those depressing hillside shantytowns. But there's samba, caipirinhas and Ipanema.

And because the taxpayers have picked up your airfare, spring for a trip to the beautiful colonial-era city of Salvador on the way down or the spectacular Iguazu Falls on the way back. Ah, what the heck, go for both.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, not available, especially in this economy, to many urban dwellers. Remember, it's early fall down there, with temps this weekend expected to be in the mid-80s. Dress appropriately.

And the wiener is . . .

Deepest Cut of the Week award: To Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.), head of the Hispanic caucus, who jumped on the no-Rahm-a bandwagon, criticizing White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel for not pushing harder for liberalized immigration laws.

"He's always about being the pragmatist," she told the New York Times. "He's always about winning."

Uh, yeah, as opposed to?

Just say no to Cuba

The liberal-leaning Center for Democracy in the Americas, which regularly takes small groups of key Hill staffers to Cuba, has a four-day trip scheduled for March 28 to find some facts. This year, about 10 aides, mostly from the House side, had signed up, even though there is no beach time on the schedule.

But Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.), in a "Dear Colleague" letter last week, urged their fellow senators not to allow their aides to go. Last year, former senator Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) met with the aides who'd signed up to dissuade them from going. They went anyway.

"We want to make you aware of a number of serious issues in our bilateral relationship that may affect your decision to have your staff participate in this delegation to Cuba," Menendez and Nelson wrote in their March 9 letter.

They cited the case of Agency for International Development subcontractor Alan Gross, who was working in Cuba on a tourist visa and possessed satellite communications equipment, who has been held in a maximum security prison since his arrest Dec. 3.

They also noted the recent death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, "a 42-year-old Cuban dissident [who] died after going on a prolonged hunger strike in protest of his ongoing beatings at the hands of the regime's prison officials." About 200 political prisoners are brutally treated in Cuban prisons, they said.

So "to have visits to Cuba in light of these deaths and human rights abuses sends the wrong signal to the Castro regime," they wrote. If some on "your staff do travel to Cuba," they wrote, "we would urge them to make as a precondition . . . the unfettered access to non-governmental civil society groups and activists in order to gain an understanding of the full spectrum of life in Cuba."

We're told this trip, like previous ones, includes meetings with Catholic Church folks, civil society people, musicians and artists, as well as government officials. There's usually an overnight jaunt to a rural area to see how different things are out in the campo.

Numerous organizations have sponsored bipartisan lawmaker and staff trips to Cuba over the years. (If you're not on this one, the New America Foundation has one going in a few weeks that will be led by former lawmakers.) U.S. citizens, with some exceptions, generally are barred from travel to Cuba -- as opposed to traveling to other repressive states such as North Korea, Iran, Libya, Burma, Sudan, Laos, Saudi Arabia, China or any other country on the planet. There's even a tourism company offering Americans trips to scenic North Korea. Go to http://www.northkorea1on1.com.

Nelson went to Syria in 2006, brushing aside similar Bush White House objections over things such as Syrian political prisoners and its alleged assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005. He also stopped in to see the Saudis, and he has visited with the Chicom leadership. Menendez has visited Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, deemed "not free" on the Freedom House listings. Unclear whether either has asked his Cuban-American constituents -- who enjoy unlimited travel and are going regularly to visit relatives on the island -- to forgo visiting for the moment.

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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