Secretary of State John Kerry’s entourage on his historic trip to Cuba on Friday included a group of eight lawmakers who have made their mark either angling for, or actively designing, the new U.S.-Cuba policy. But the trip may also prove fertile ground for future diplomatic endeavors involving other countries.
Traveling with the secretary means more face-time for all involved. And that may give individual lawmakers an opportunity to press Kerry on their pet projects – and Kerry the chance to twist some still-undecided arms on the Iran nuclear deal.
The lawmakers who traveled to Cuba to see the flag raised at the U.S. embassy in Havana are:
BARBARA BOXER (D-Calif.)–Boxer’s first trip to Cuba was in 2002, and she has since been an advocate for increasing agricultural ties. California farmers have their eyes on Cuba as a hot new export market – or did before the latest drought. Food exports to Cuba have been allowed since 2000, but other restrictions have put American farmers at a competitive disadvantage against other countries.
AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-Minn.)–Klobuchar has emerged as one of the key lawmakers angling for normalizing relations with Cuba, especially in the last year. In that time, she’s led a bipartisan group of senators seeking to roll back over a half-century of sanctions against Cuba, drafting legislation to lift the trade embargo, and visiting Havana earlier this year.
JEFF FLAKE (R-Ariz.)–The lonely Republican on the trip has been pushing for normalization of ties with Cuba for much of his congressional tenure. He’s been to Cuba a dozen times, leading a CODEL there nine years ago as a House member — bearing presents of books about capitalism — and more recently, he was among a small band of lawmakers who welcomed home prisoner Alan Gross.
Flake’s Cuba policy distinguishes him from others Republicans, who are presently tripping over each other to declare how forcefully they plan to roll back the new strategy if they win the White House in 2016. And right now, the president is hoping Flake may break with his party on another top issue on the White House’s agenda: the Iran nuclear deal. Obama sees Flake as his best and potentially only chance to get some Republican support for the agreement. Flake, thus far, has refused to say how he will vote.
PATRICK LEAHY (D-Vt.): The dean of the delegation, who has many high-level Cuban contacts, has also been a behind-the-scenes facilitator of the deal’s finer points. But it was an unexpected meeting that captured the attention of both nations: On one visit to Cuba, Leahy was approached by the wife of Cuban spy Gerardo Hernandez – one of the Cuban Five – who was desperate to have a child. So began the most unorthodox part of the negotiations – the transfer of sperm from the spy sentenced to two life terms in California to his wife, waiting in Panama for an insemination procedure. She did eventually become pregnant, and give birth to a baby girl; Hernandez was later released as part of a prisoner swap that also freed American Alan Gross.
BARBARA LEE (D-Calif.)–Over 20 trips to Cuba in 30 years, and an audience with Fidel Castro, are just some of the high points of Lee’s Cuba engagement, which began long before Lee was elected to the House. She’s been an advocate for Afro-Cubans and active in settling some of the most memorable Cuban crises, from the campaign to free Alan Gross to the decision to return Elian Gonzales. Lee has frequently led congressional delegations to Cuba.
JIM McGOVERN (D-Mass.)–McGovern has been beating the drum for a new approach to Cuba for years, advocating lifting travel restrictions, economic sanctions, and removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror. He has been to Cuba several times since the 1970s, and argued that there was more political space – and more progress – evident than many in American politics believed. McGovern had an audience with Raul Castro in 2013 that helped pave the way for normalizing relations, and party leaders have credited him for playing an important role in securing Gross’s release.
STEVE COHEN (D-Tenn.)–Cohen is part of a band of House Democrats seeking to open up ties with Cuba, lift the embargo and bring U.S. businesses to the island. But he’s currently on the fence on another Obama priority: the Iran deal. Cohen was defensive of the Obama administration’s negotiations, but he has not yet declared how he will vote. As one of the Hill’s higher-profile Jewish lawmakers, however, his potential support for the bill could serve as a counter to the recent opposition from New York Democrats Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Eliot Engel.
KAREN BASS (D-Calif.)–Bass is a longtime advocate for normalizing relations with Cuba, and has visited a handful of times, most recently on a congressional trip late last year. Bass is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, but as a former physician’s assistant, is particularly interested in what reestablishing diplomatic ties could do for treating American diabetics. A Cuban-developed drug that has saved the limbs of diabetes patients worldwide was banned under the sanctions from being brought to the U.S. for clinical testing. She is also an advocate for increased agricultural trade, something California farmers are hoping will be part of the thaw. Bass, too, has not declared her Iran stance yet.