WASHINGTON — Top aides to Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, two of the most vehement anti-Communist voices in Washington, took an all expenses paid trip to China this month courtesy of the Chinese government.
Sally Canfield, deputy chief of staff to Rubio, and Arthur Estopinan, chief of staff to Ros-Lehtinen, were part of a congressional staff trip facilitated by the U.S.-Asia Institute.
The trips, which include meetings with government officials in Beijing, have occurred since 1985, involving hundreds of lawmakers and staffers. They are a popular perk on Capitol Hill and come with luxury hotel stays and visits to top tourist sites, including the Great Wall. The cost can exceed $10,000 a person.
The Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen connection stands out because of their strong anti-Communism views. Both Cuban-American lawmakers have condemned the human rights records of China and Cuba and have opposed efforts to lift the U.S. embargo on Cuba. They also regularly criticize people who have gone to Cuba.
Last year, Rubio drew widespread notice for bashing a trip to the island by Jay Z and Beyoncé. In May, he called a U.S. Chamber trip "misguided and fraught with peril of becoming a propaganda coup for the Castro regime — to the detriment of America's strategic interest in protecting human rights around the world, as well as the Cuban people.
The Tampa Bay Times learned of the aides' visits — which have not yet shown up in Senate or House disclosures — from a source backing a group that wants to see more normal relations with Cuba.
"It represents a real double standard," said Chris Sabatini, senior policy director of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, when the Times told him about the trips. "At the same time they are denying citizens' right to travel to Cuba, they feel staff can travel to another country that has the same pattern of human rights abuses."
Ros-Lehtinen, a constant critic of the Chinese regime's human rights record and military buildup, said had she known the government paid for the trip she would not have approved.
"Although the House Ethics Committee approves these types of trips, had I been informed of the specific Chinese government involvement, I would not have approved the trip," she said in a statement. "As my legislative record shows, I disagree with the decision by my chief of staff to visit China and will take internal steps to ensure no trips like this happen again."
Rubio's spokesman Alex Conant wrote: "Senator Rubio has consistently condemned the totalitarian nature of the Chinese government, its record of systematic human rights violations and its illegitimate territorial claims. However, China is the most populous nation on earth, has the world's second largest economy, has a significant nuclear weapons arsenal and is increasingly an economic competitor of the United States.
"While he abhors many of the Chinese government's actions, as a member of the Senate's foreign relations and intelligence committees, he cannot ignore their growing geopolitical importance. Also, as the ranking member of the Senate's Asia subcommittee, he cannot ignore the largest nation in Asia, and recognizes that staff travel approved by the U.S. government and Senate ethics is sometimes necessary in helping advance our advocacy on a host of foreign policy issues."
As part of her travel, which occurred Aug. 5-16., Canfield "led some very tense discussions over human rights issues, especially with the Chinese Institute for Contemporary International Relations, and in Hong Kong," Conant added.
Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen have been leading opponents of lifting the trade embargo on Cuba and efforts to make travel easier. Rubio has not criticized Cubans who want to return to their homeland to see family. But he has not held back when Americans have had nice things to say about Cuba.
"U.S. law clearly bans tourism to Cuba by American citizens because it provides money to a cruel, repressive and murderous regime," Rubio said in the statement after Jay Z and Beyoncé visited in 2013. "Since their inception, the Obama administration's 'people to people' cultural exchange programs have been abused by tourists who have no interest in the Cuban people's freedom and either don't realize or don't care that they're essentially funding the regime's systematic trampling of people's human rights."
Earlier this year, Rubio ripped U.S. Sen Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, for making positive comments about the Cuban health care system after a visit. Rubio followed Harkin to the Senate floor for a scathing rebuke that generated news coverage, including copious praise from conservative commentators.
In a 2013 speech to the Cuba-Democracy PAC Rubio lashed out at those who visit.
"The thing I really get a kick out of is every year without fail, three or four of my colleagues in the Senate will travel to Cuba, they'll have their yearly meeting with Raul Castro or whoever is there. And then they come back with the same story, 'Oh, we really have to figure out a way to change policy toward Cuba. What we have today is a relic of the Cold War,' " Rubio said. "That's what they say. It is a relic of the Cold War, but our policy is not the relic. The relic is the Cuban government. That's the relic. The relic is tyranny. The relic is communism."
The U.S.-Asia Institute, a nonprofit based in Washington, does not disclose the names of people who go on the trips (congressional staff are required to disclose but there is a reporting lag), but an official there confirmed they are paid for by the Chinese government.
The trips began in 1985 and were authorized by the U.S. State Department under the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961.
Foreign travel is increasingly sponsored by foreign governments as ethics reforms have clamped down on other free trips. In a 2013 investigation, the Washington Post reported, "This overseas travel is often arranged by lobbyists for foreign governments, though lobbyists were barred from organizing other types of congressional trips out of concern that the trips could be used to buy favor."
Contact Alex Leary at [email protected] Follow @learyreports.