The Congressional Black Caucus was founded in 1969, five years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and just a year after the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. It was a tumultuous period for American race relations, and few imagined that, just 40 years later, the United States would elect a black president.
According to the CBC website, the group’s founders “believed that a black caucus in Congress, speaking with a single voice, would provide political influence and visibility far beyond their numbers.”
Since that time, the CBC has advocated on a host of important issues, from the racially disproportionate effect of the nation’s drug laws to South African apartheid.
In light of this noble history — particularly the latter issue, which concerned a country’s denial of basic rights to the vast majority of its citizens — it was dispiriting to see a delegation of caucus members venture to Cuba two weeks ago to heap praise on Fidel and Raul Castro, the tyrannical tag team that has ruled the island for a half-century. Leading the delegation was CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who, in addition to having groveled before Castro, has the dubious distinction of being the only member of Congress to vote against the war in Afghanistan.
While the ostensible purpose of the visit was to advocate for the repeal of the Cuban embargo, the trip was ultimately a propaganda coup for the Cuban regime.
The CBC delegation could have done many productive things during its visit to Cuba. It could have asked to meet with Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, an Afro-Cuban political dissident serving a 25-year prison sentence for his activities. It could have called for free elections and a free press. It could have demanded that the Cuban people be able to travel abroad.
But CBC members did none of these things. Not one bothered to question the Castros about the horrid conditions of their political prison camps, let alone pay a visit to the helpless democracy activists who languish in them.
The CBC’s members — who rarely hesitate to criticize instances of racism in America, real or perceived — could also have said something about the persistent and government-sponsored anti-black racism in Cuba. But even this seemingly pertinent issue didn’t merit the CBC’s attention. On the contrary, Fidel Castro wrote that CBC members told him that, in spite of Obama’s election, it is America that “continues to be racist.”
Lee and others disputed this account, but it didn’t make a dent in their fawning praise of the man. “It was quite a moment to behold,” she remarked of her encounter with El Jefe. “He’s one of the most amazing human beings I’ve ever met!” cooed Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). “It was almost like listening to an old friend,” gushed Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), a former Black Panther who, given his past associations with thugs and murderers, could not be faulted here for hyperbole.
But if Castro would lie so blatantly and put such an incendiary accusation in the mouths of these congressmen, as Lee’s denial implies, why would any of the people who were in the room with Castro trust him on anything, never mind stick to political promises?
That a noble cause may have some morally obtuse advocates ought not rob it of its validity. Removing the embargo on Cuba would be a boon for the cause of democracy on the island. Clearly, American policy over the past 50 years has not worked, as the junta remains in place. While the Obama administration has yet to go so far as to lift the embargo, its recent moves — removing restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban-Americans — point in the right direction.
But none of this obviates the ultimate effect of the CBC’s jaunt to Cuba, which was to embolden the dictatorship and discourage the island’s heroic democracy activists. The State Department ought to have prohibited the delegation from departing for Cuba under the terms of the Logan Act, which prevents American citizens from conducting diplomacy not specifically authorized by the government.
Cuba has long denied visas to regime critics, in particular Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.), two of Capitol Hill’s strongest advocates for human rights. In a news conference denouncing the Havana dog and pony show, Smith announced that he and Wolf would make another attempt at getting a Cuban visa, noting: “I will say upfront that, if we are granted a visa, we will raise questions of human rights, and we will try to visit political prisoners.” Take a guess as to where the status of their request now stands.
Cuba will eventually be free, hopefully sooner rather than later. When it does, the record will show that the Congressional Black Caucus did little to contribute to, and much to defer, the hastening of that day.