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What were members of the U.S. Congressional Progressive Caucus doing in Havana?

A delegation of the U.S. Congressional Progressive Caucus traveled to Cuba last week in a trip that has not previously been disclosed by the legislators nor reported in Cuban state media.

The group of about a dozen people was led by Democratic U.S. Reps. Pramila Jayapal of the state of Washington and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. It included a congressional staffer from the office of California Rep. Barbara Lee’s office, sources with knowledge of the trip told the Miami Herald.

Jayapal and Omar, members of the informal left-wing group of lawmakers known as “the squad,” did not reply to emails and messages seeking comment. Lee’s office also did not reply to a request for comment.

After the Herald published this story, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, comprising more than 100 lawmakers and chaired by Jayapal, confirmed the trip.

“Representatives Jayapal and Omar traveled to Cuba last week, where they met with people from across Cuban civil society and government officials to discuss human rights and the U.S.-Cuba bilateral relationship,” said a Caucus spokesperson.

Jayapal and Omar have been vocal critics of the U.S. embargo against Cuba and have supported bills to normalize relations with the island’s communist government. They were among the 40 Democrats who voted against a symbolic resolution supporting peaceful demonstrators who protested against the Cuban government in July 2021 and “calling for the immediate release of arbitrarily detained Cuban citizens.”

In January, Jayapal urged the Biden administration to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorism, a decision made in the last days of Donald Trump’s time in office that she said had “devastated” the island’s economy.

“Being on this list has made it nearly impossible for Cuba to do international business, driving an economic downturn that has led residents to flee the country,” she said in a post on X. “It’s time to re-engage with Cuba.”

Cuban official media traditionally highlight American lawmakers going to the island, usually framing their visit as a gesture of “solidarity” with the Cuban people or support for ending the U.S. embargo. This time, state media was mum. Cuba’s Foreign Ministry did not disclose the trip.

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA)
Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA)

Despite the diplomatic tensions between the two countries, Cuban and American officials regularly meet to discuss migration and other national-security issues. Cuban officials traveled to Washington earlier this month to attend a law-enforcement dialogue with Department of Justice and Homeland Security officials.

Last week, Kerri Hannan, deputy assistant secretary for Public Diplomacy, Policy, Planning and Coordination at the State Department, met with members of Cuba’s civil society, Black activists, human rights defenders and independent private entrepreneurs, the U.S. embassy in Havana said in a statement. She also met with Cuban government officials “and pressed for the release of political prisoners,” the embassy said.

Sara Minkara, special advisor for the State Department on International Disability Rights, also went to Havana in late January on a two-day visit during which she “advocated for greater inclusion of Cubans with disabilities in all aspects of society,” the embassy said.