By David Cruz
When President Obama announced his executive action on Cuba late in 2014 it opened avenues into the island that had long been closed. Even as delegations from across the U.S. — including, recently, the governor of New York — make high-profile visits to the island, a delegation of 10 New Jersey lawmakers who visited Cuba last week, are getting significant blow back from prominent Cuban-Americans.
“They have the right to [visit Cuba]; I don’t question that,” said Sen. Bob Menendez.
Menendez, perhaps the most prominent Cuban-American in New Jersey, has been a vocal critic of the Obama administration’s Cuba outreach, and he said this week that while the New Jersey delegation may have had good intentions, they were ultimately just playing into the hands of the Castro regime.
“The reality is that if you’re looking to do business with a country, Cuba is not the place I would be thinking about because you’re doing business with an oppressive regime,” he added.
The lawmakers paid their own way after Cuban-born Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto rejected a request to have the state pay for the trip. Assemblyman Gordon Johnson helped organize the visit.
“We trade with China, which has some issues with how they treat their people,” said Johnson. “We have factories in Vietnam and we lost 60,000 soldiers there.”
“I don’t think they know enough about what’s going on in Cuba,” said Cuban-born Congressman Albio Sires — a former mayor of West New York, which remains largely Cuban. He suggested that the delegation was being a bit naive. When asked if there was anything to be gained by sending delegates of New Jersey lawmakers to Cuba he said, “The thing is they legitimize the government and, quite frankly, the economy, 85 percent of the economy is run by the military in Cuba.”
Meanwhile, other states, like New York, are aggressively pursuing closer business ties.
“We are in competition with other states when it comes down to business down there, that I recognize and if this meeting I thought could open the door to some businesses to get some contracts or some investment down there that might benefit employees back here, then I thought it was worth doing,” added Johnson.
Johnson admits that the delegation’s access to regular Cubans was minimal and they were escorted by government handlers. He said he brought up the issue of the return of Assata Shakur, known as Joanne Chesimard, but got blank stares in return and no promises on that front.
Participants say they hope this is the first of many meetings aimed at establishing business ties with the island. In fact, another trade mission has been tentatively set for later in the year, evidence that, while the critics voices are still loud, they don’t have as much of an impact as they used to.