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Why Sen. Klobuchar felt like a celebrity on Cuba trip

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To most Americans, Dec. 17 is nothing more than a date when panic sets in that their holiday shopping isn’t done. But in Cuba, the day has almost become its own holiday.

So reports Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who called the Loop from Havana on Tuesday afternoon as she wrapped up a four-day visit with colleagues Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.).

Klobuchar is the lead sponsor of a bill to end the 53-year-old trade embargo with Cuba, which made little news here (Loop covered it as part of our CRS report feature) but was splashed across the front pages in Cuba, she said. So prominent was it that when she walked down the streets, Cubans recognized her.

And Dec. 17, the day President Obama announced that he would begin normalizing relations with Cuba, is a date they celebrate. In the markets, she told us, artwork is sold using the newspaper front page of Obama’s decree.

“We walked freely around the streets and talked with anyone we wanted,” Klobuchar said. “I did not know what to expect. … The people were really positive about Americans, I didn’t expect them to be that positive and that excited.” (Well, most Cubans weren’t alive the last time we invaded.)

She also was moved by the nostalgic feel of Cuba, describing it as a throwback and mentioning the 1950s cars. McCaskill, who maintained her active social media presence while there, felt the same:

Since Obama jump-started the possibility of opening up Cuba to American businesses and tourists, lawmakers have flocked to the island to fact-find. (Also doesn’t hurt that it’s in the 80s and sunny most days.)

As the three senators prepared to leave, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and a posse of House Democrats were on their way down to spend several days building relationships. Last month Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) led a delegation of Democrats from the Senate and the House to Cuba on the first official congressional trip since Obama had decided to restore diplomatic ties with the country.

More Democrats are excited about the prospects of opening up Cuba than Republicans, but Klobuchar said she’s hearing positive things from GOP lawmakers, especially those representing big farm states. The agriculture and business communities are eager to tap into a newly expanded market, which could help sway reluctant Republicans. (Currently U.S. agricultural exports are allowed to Cuba, but only on a cash-basis.)

The trade embargo can only be fully lifted by legislation — unless Cuba forms a democracy and then the president can lift it — but some goods can be brought in and out. Most famously, Obama eased restrictions on Cuban cigars, allowing Americans to bring home $100 worth.

Klobuchar, of course, brought some home (we assume some fine H. Upmann Sir Winstons) to give out to friends. But seeing as the cigars are such hot commodities, she wouldn’t say who she was giving them to … she didn’t want to start a scrum.