Cuban dictator Raúl Castro welcomed a delegation of American lawmakers this week led by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who disparaged their own government as “stupid” for maintaining sanctions on Havana and defended the communist regime from evidence that it allowed an attack on U.S. diplomats that resulted in brain damage.
While Cuba heartily welcomes public criticism of the U.S. government, public criticism of the Cuban government is defined as the crime of desacato, or “disrespect.” Desacato is punishable by “deprivation of liberty for three months to a year or a fine … or both,” as per the Cuban penal code.
Cuban dissidents condemned Leahy and his Democratic cohort—Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA), and Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL)—as “facilitators of the regime” who have expressed no interest in defending the human rights of Cuban citizens.
The Congressional delegation arrived on February 17 and met with Raúl Castro on Tuesday. According to Communist Party newspaper Granma, Leahy “stressed the need for all staff to return to the Cuban Embassy in Washington and U.S. Embassy in Havana, as soon as possible; and expressed his regret after certain cooperation programs between the two countries were put on hold.”
The details of the conversation between the American officials and the Cuban tyrant have remained private, though Granma ceded that the parties discussed “issues of mutual concern.” Leahy described the conversation as “frank and honest,” according to Spain’s Diario de Cuba, and said Castro himself was “animated” and “involved.”
#Cuba🇺: Recibió #RaúlCastro a delegación del Congreso de #EEUU🇺🇸, encabezada por @SenatorLeahy e integrada además por @RonWyden, @SenGaryPeters, @RepMcGovern y @RepSusanDavis. Por la parte cubana estuvieron presentes el canciller #BrunoRguez y @CarlosFdeCossio│#CubaUS pic.twitter.com/9QfFzdgVzw
— Cancillería de Cuba (@CubaMINREX) February 21, 2018
In addition to meeting with Castro, the delegation held conversations with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez and Carlos Fernández de Cossío, the ministry’s new head of U.S. relations. These conversations reportedly centered around the attacks on U.S. diplomats working in Havana. Believed to have begun in 2016, a series of attacks of unknown origin targeted U.S. officials and their families in Cuba. According to a study by University of Pennsylvania scholars published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 21 of the individuals targeted by the attacks suffered severe symptoms, such as hearing loss and “widespread brain network dysfunction.”
The study concluded that a “novel mechanism” could have caused the damage, but did not name any specific weapon that could have caused the damage.
Rodrigúez, the foreign ministry, had previously called the reports of such attacks “science fiction.” Granma’s official explanation for the attacks is that the diplomats heard insect noises and blamed the Cuban government for attacking them.
Meeting with the lawmakers, Fernández de Cossío toed the government line, stating that he had “no evidence that attacks occurred against U.S. diplomats in Cuba.”
Leahy reportedly claimed that Cuba had “reiterated its willingness to work alongside the U.S. to get to the bottom of the case”—despite Havana insisting the case does not exist—and condemned the U.S. State Department for warning U.S. citizens that they may face physical attacks in Cuba due to their citizenship status.
In a press conference on Wednesday, Leahy asserted, “The embargo does not make sense and the reversal of the policies negotiated by Barack Obama and Raúl Castro do not help the U.S. or Cuba.”
Rep. McGovern agreed, adding that “the U.S. policy towards Cuba has been guided by paranoia and suspicion” and that this was “stupid.”
The American delegation did not meet with any pro-democracy Cuban dissidents.
Leahy was among the senators who visited Cuba with President Barack Obama in 2016, a “historic” visit in which Obama enjoyed observing a baseball game with Castro while the government beat and arrested hundreds of dissidents to keep foreign media from covering their existence. While Democrats have traditionally been more likely to engage in such exchanges with Cuba, many Republicans are also comfortable socializing with Castro regime officials. At least one prominent Republican—Sen. Jeff Flake—supported Cuba’s claim that the attacks on U.S. embassy never happened before the JANA study came out.
The Cuban dissident group Estado de SATS, in a video produced for social media distribution, condemned Leahy as a “facilitator of the regime.” Antonio Rodiles, the head of the group, noted that he once met Leahy on a visit to Cuba.
“My impression was that the last thing he wanted to hear about was the reality of the situation on the island … he cared about his agenda,” Rodiles recalled. He also condemned Leahy for criticizing U.S. President Donald Trump while “giving the most totalitarian regime on the hemisphere a pat in the back.”