Progressive US Democrats defend Cuba trip, will seek changes

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By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two Democratic U.S. lawmakers who just returned from Cuba pushed back against Republicans' criticism of the trip, calling on President Joe Biden's administration to ease restrictions on relations with the Communist-ruled island.

Representatives Pramila Jayapal and Ilhan Omar, chair and deputy chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, were in Cuba from Feb. 19-22.

Republicans accused them of sympathizing with Cuba's communist government. Representative Nicole Malliotakis said on social media, "Say it out loud: The Congressional Communist Sympathizing Caucus." Representative Mike Waltz said they had gone "to get a refresher course on communism to bring back to DC."

Jayapal dismissed such comments as "ridiculous," noting that agriculture secretaries from several U.S. states, some Republican-led, had been visiting Havana when she and Omar were on the island.

"The reality is a lot of people in the United States want to engage with Cuba. And we should figure out a way to do that and we should support the reforms that the Cuban government is working to implement," Jayapal told Reuters in the first interview she and Omar have given about the trip.

Jayapal and Omar met with Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel and other Cuban officials, community leaders and relatives of people imprisoned for protesting against the government.

The two representatives lean farther left than Democratic leaders, but are important voices in the party this election year as Biden tries to respond to progressives' criticism over issues from immigration policy to support for Israel in its war against Hamas.

FLORIDA BACKED TRUMP IN LAST TWO ELECTIONS

Cuba-U.S. relations remain a hot-button political issue for the right as well, particularly in the swing state Florida where many Cuban-Americans strongly back strict sanctions on the country.

When he was president, Republican Donald Trump, the likely nominee to run against Biden this year, unraveled a detente with Havana started by former Democratic President Barack Obama in 2014.

Two years later, Florida backed Trump in the 2016 election, after supporting Obama in 2008 and 2012. The state went for Trump again in 2020.

Biden said during his 2020 campaign that he would reverse policies on Cuba that "have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights." But he has not made significant changes.

Cuba is mired in its worst economic crisis in decades, and a half million Cubans have left over the past two years, contributing to a surge of undocumented immigrants entering the United States.

Supporters of sanctions say Havana is at fault for its closed economy and for violating civil and human rights.

But critics argue that it would be in Washington's interest to improve ordinary Cubans' lives by allowing shipments of food and medicine, noting that the decades-long embargo has not changed Cuba's government.

"For us to continue to have, and implement, policies from 60 years ago is not helpful for our country's national interests and it's certainly not helpful to the people of the Cuban island," Omar said.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, additional reporting by Makini Brice; editing by Don Durfee and Kevin Liffey)