Mystery surrounds a secret trip by squad members Ilhan Omar and Pramila Japayal to communist Cuba that coincided with a visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The two leaders of the progressive Democratic group sparked fury when details of last week’s trip emerged and top Republicans accused them of a communist “pilgrimage.”
The congresswomen, who have long criticized the US embargo on the Caribbean island, said they were there to “meet with people from across Cuban civil society.”
But critics criticized his support for a country that “supports Iran, Russia and communist China.”
“It is outrageous that members of Congress would visit a country that imprisons, abuses and murders its citizens,” said Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, R-N.Y., the daughter of Cuban immigrants.
Reps. Ilhan Omar and Pramila Japayal, chairwoman and vice chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Progressive Caucus, made their unpublicized trip while Congress was in recess.
Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, R-New York, the daughter of Cuban immigrants, was enraged when news of the trip leaked.
“Perhaps your time would be better spent listening to the Cubans who cross our southern border and risk their lives on makeshift rafts to find out why they are fleeing communism.”
The couple led a delegation of about a dozen people, including a staffer from California Rep. Barbara Lee’s office, the Miami Herald reported.
There are strict restrictions on travel to the island, which President Trump re-listed as state sponsors of terrorism in January 2021.
But both lawmakers have loudly called for its removal from the list and an end to US sanctions on the island that, according to Japayal, have “devastated” its economy.
“Being on this list has made it nearly impossible for Cuba to do international business, causing an economic crisis that has led residents to flee the country,” he wrote in January.
“It’s time to re-engage with Cuba.”
“Too often, economic and sectoral sanctions are designed to inflict maximum pain on civilians, not empower them,” Omar said in 2019.
“We had a total embargo against Cuba for decades, with little effect on the Cuban government but with a lot of pain inflicted on ordinary Cubans.”
As protests shook Cuba in the summer of 2021, Omar and Japayal were among 40 Democrats who voted against a resolution calling for the immediate release of arbitrarily detained Cuban citizens.
The Cuban government did not give any regular publicity to visits by foreign lawmakers, and the U.S. party entered the country unannounced when Congress was in recess.
The exact dates of the trip have not been revealed but no tweets were sent from Omar’s personal X account between February 17 and 21.
Lavrov, who was there on February 19, did not hide his visit at the beginning of a tour of South America, accusing the West of “blackmail, ultimatums and threats” against Russia and Cuba.
“The realities of a multipolar world are provoking an aggressive reaction from the United States and other world minority countries that want by all means to preserve their domination, hegemony and dictation,” he added.
Moscow and Havana have grown closer as Russia sought allies following its invasion of Ukraine, and in November 2022, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel traveled to Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin.
Last year, Díaz-Canel assured Moscow of Cuba’s “unconditional support” in its “clash with the West.”
A 2022 State Department report found that Cuba remained a systematic abuser of human rights, carrying out arbitrary killings, torture and “degrading” treatment of political prisoners.
“Impunity for perpetrators remains widespread, as does impunity for official corruption,” he concluded.
A spokeswoman for the 100-member Congressional Progressive Caucus gave a brief explanation of the visit by its president and vice president.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) made no secret of his trip to the island and posed for photographs with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez.
Lavrov attended the wreath-laying ceremony at the José Martí monument in Havana.
“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 bilateral relationship between the United States and Cuba,” he said.
But Republican leaders were not impressed.
“It’s no surprise that the Hamas group made a pilgrimage to Cuba last week to get a refresher course on communism and bring it back to DC,” Florida Congressman Mike Waltz tweeted.
“All members of the media should refer to the Progressive Caucus by its more accurate name: the Congressional Communist Sympathy Caucus,” Rep. Malliotakis added.