MIAMI — On the eve of his three-day trade mission to Cuba, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) on Saturday pushed back against a Republican legislator’s demand that he meet with dissidents while on the island.
Del.-elect Jason Miyares, the first Cuban American elected to Virginia’s General Assembly, called on McAuliffe to spend time with the Ladies in White and others at odds with Cuba’s communist regime. Miyares’s family fled the country in 1965.
“As Governor McAuliffe decides to ring in the New Year in the only non-democratic nation in the entire Western Hemisphere, perhaps he should keep in mind the thousands of dissidents that are harassed, beaten and imprisoned each day in Cuba simply because they yearn for freedom,” said Miyares, who in November won a House seat, representing Virginia Beach.
“As Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe holds the same seat as Thomas Jefferson, and as such he has a special responsibility during his Cuba trip to speak out on behalf of the timeless universal truths of his predecessor; the self-evident truths that ‘all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights’ including the Right of ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuant of Happiness,’” Miyares said in a written statement issued late Friday night. “Mr. Jefferson was able to utter those words to the mighty British Empire 240 years ago, surely Governor McAuliffe can advocate these same timeless principles to the Castro regime today.”
McAuliffe heads for Cuba on Sunday for a three-day trip intended to promote exports of Virginia products at a time of warming relations between the two countries. His public schedule for the trip, dominated by meetings with the various government officials who do the buying for Cuba’s centrally planned economy, gives no indication that the governor plans to meet with dissidents.
McAuliffe’s spokesman said the governor’s job in Cuba is to promote trade, but noted that an improved U.S.-Cuban relationship offers hope for progress on human rights.
“The purpose of the Governor’s trip is to open new markets for Virginia products,” McAuliffe’s spokesman, Brian Coy, said via email in response to Miyares’s statement. “He believes opening trade relations is a key strategy to create new economic activity and opportunities for families in Virginia and Cuba alike.
“For the first time fifty years, the US and Cuba have a formal diplomatic relationship and a process — agreed to by both governments — for discussing human rights. The Governor is pleased with this significant achievement as he believes it, along with greater commerce and trade activities, will pave the way for better relations between the US and Cuba, something that citizens of both countries support.”
McAuliffe will be the fourth sitting U.S. governor to travel to Cuba since President Obama announced plans just over a year ago to begin normalizing relations with the communist country. He follows New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R).
None of the others met with dissidents during their trips, said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which provided information to McAuliffe and other governors ahead of their trips.
“Generally we have suggested that when governors go down, that they steer away from anything that is truly going to be provocative for the Cubans, because they’re supposed to be there as chief marketing officers for their states,” Kavulich said.
“I think there’s a different role for a United States senator or a member of the House of Representatives,” he added, noting that unlike governors, members of Congress have an official role in making foreign policy.
But Kavulich said that McAuliffe is in an awkward spot because he has close personal ties to former president Bill Clinton and current Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton.
“It’s tough because that delegate does have a point — you’re an elected official, you’re a very visible official, you’ve got that tie to the Clintons,” he said. “So maybe you should say, ‘I’m here trying to get business as a state official, but as a human being, as a father, as a husband, I think it’s important that anyone who comes to a country not gloss over issues just because they’re inconvenient.’ ”