The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) prides itself as being “the conscience of the Congress.” But some of its members have taken up a new cause which is being hotly contested on the Hill. Led by CBC Chair Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a delegation of six CBC members visited Cuba earlier this month and met with President Raul Castro and former President Fidel Castro to discuss lifting trade and travel restrictions—a controversial move that has also left some Republicans up in arms warning the President should be very careful before making any decisions regarding the communist country.
The Kennedy administration imposed the economic embargo in 1963. Not one United States president since has seriously considered formulating a connection to the Caribbean nation. That hasn’t stopped the discussion from reaching various Latin American leaders at the Summit of Americas, which President Obama attended in Trinidad and Tobago over the weekend. ESSENCE.com talked with Congresswoman Lee about the CBC’s sudden interest in Cuba, their choice not to address human rights concerns, and why she believes President Obama should be the one to forge new ties with an island only 90 miles away from U.S. shores.
ESSENCE.COM: With all the domestic challenges that African-Americans are facing more than ever—unemployment, poverty, foreclosures—why are you taking up the cause of U.S.-Cuban relations now? And why should African-Americans care about this issue?
CONGRESSWOMAN BARBARA LEE: The CBC has been involved in trying to normalize relations with Cuba for many years. Members of Congress are global in terms of establishing and crafting foreign policy as well as domestic policy. We have to work on both fronts. African-American businesses would certainly benefit from opening markets to Cuba. There are also opportunities for cultural and educational exchange. And why not allow Americans to travel to a country 90 miles off our shore when they can travel to China and Vietnam?
ESSENCE.COM: Congressman Kendrick Meek, a CBC member, has voiced opposition to President Obama’s recent decision to allow Cuban Americans to send unlimited remittance to relatives in Cuba because the government takes a 20 percent cut. What are your thoughts on that?
LEE: I think increasing the remittances will help families in Cuba. I certainly support what President Obama has done in terms of beginning to open up that window of normalizing relations. I think the entire embargo needs to be lifted, and the travel ban. Our mission there was very focused. We wanted to determine whether or not Cuba was serious about dialogue with the U.S. about normalizing relations, and if they were what they thought the preconditions were. So our discussions centered around our foreign policy.
ESSENCE.COM: So then, you weren’t necessarily interested in discussing human rights and political prisoners while you were there?
LEE: Human rights, the plight of Afro-Cubans, political prisoners—those issues keep coming up from the American side. From the Cuban side, Guantanamo, of course, keeps coming up. Both sides have all these issues with each other. So we did not focus on what those issues were. What we focused on had to do with whether or not the conditions existed to get to talk about it, and putting them on the table.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you think we’ll see the trade embargo and travel ban lifted under President Obama?
LEE: It’s going to be very difficult. There are many executive orders that he could enact and loosen some regulations with the stroke of a pen. But Congress also has to move forward on a legislative front to try to lift the travel ban and repeal other laws. I think what the President did on the remittances and opening up travel is an excellent first step. All Latin American countries have diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba. Our policy 50 years ago tried to isolate Cuba, but it’s actually had the reverse effect. It actually isolated the United States.