House lawmakers blocked from visiting Cuba

Several House lawmakers claim they were blocked by the Cuban government from traveling to the country, where they planned to assess aviation security and passenger screening at airports.

ADVERTISEMENT
The delegation, led by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), planned to visit the island this weekend to evaluate the potential national security risks associated with resuming commercial air service to Cuba.

The Obama administration earlier this year announced an agreement to re-establish scheduled air service between the U.S. and Cuba as part of an effort to normalize relations with the former Cold War enemy. Six commercial U.S. airlines will begin flying to Cuba this fall, the Department of Transportation announced this month.

Travel to Cuba is permitted under limited circumstances, including for official U.S. government business.

But members of the Homeland Security Committee said their visas were not approved for their planned trip.

Adding fuel to the fire is an announcement on Friday that National Basketball Association hall-of-famer Shaquille O’Neal will serve as a U.S. Department of State Sports Envoy to Cuba from June 25 to 28.

“At a time when the Obama Administration is rolling out the red carpet for Havana, the Cuban government refuses to be open and transparent with the peoples’ Representatives,” McCaul said in a statement on Friday. “Sadly, it appears to be easier for Cubans to come to the United States than for Members of the House Homeland Security Committee to get to Cuba.” 

A spokesperson said that the State Department regularly reaches out to other governments to facilitate the visa process and has engaged with Cuban officials in a similar manner, which has resulted in 10 Congressional delegations traveling to the island nation since January 2015. 

But the spokesperson added that the department regrets the lawmakers’ visit has not been confirmed and understands that the Cuban government will offer to accommodate the delegation in the future.

Other lawmakers who were planning to visit Cuba include Reps. John Katko (R-N.Y.), Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) and Henry Cuellar (D-Texas).

“The Administration is eager to have as many people as possible visit Cuba – except for those who are attempting to examine Cuban security infrastructure,” said Katko, chairman of the transportation security subcommittee. “We still don’t know if Cuba has the adequate body scanners and explosive detection systems in place, whether it has the technology to screen for fraudulent passports or ID, whether or how aviation workers are screened, and if Federal Air Marshals will be allowed to fly missions to Cuba on commercial flights.”

The Homeland Security Committee held a hearing last month with Department of Homeland Security officials on those concerns, but GOP committee leaders said they still had unanswered questions.

Another hearing on Cuba air travel was scheduled for earlier this week, but it was postponed, and lawmakers received a closed-door briefing from officials.