U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist quietly traveled to Cuba last month to meet with officials there amid mounting tension between the Communist island and President Donald Trump’s administration over the crisis in Venezuela.
The trip spanned April 25 through April 27, according to travel records maintained by the House of Representatives Committee on Ethics, and was not announced by Crist’s Congressional office. There are no details about it on his House website. The sponsor of the trip was the Center for Democracy in the Americas, an organization that “promotes a U.S. policy toward Cuba based on engagement and recognition of Cuba’s sovereignty,” according to its website.
Crist said his visit focused on “advancements in US-Cuba policy and relations made during the Obama Administration, and the impact of the Trump Administration’s change in course.” The St. Petersburg Democrat was a vocal supporter of the easing of travel and business restrictions championed by President Barack Obama but pulled back after Trump took office.
“My concern is for the Cuban people and the long term security interests of the United States. As we disengage and tighten sanctions, Russia and China will enter the void,” Crist said. "For a country 90 miles off Florida’s coast, that’s not a positive development, and the Cuban people caught in the crossfire will either flee or suffer.”
But Crist’s tour of the island coincided with growing diplomatic strain between Trump and Cuban leaders over the situation in Venezuela, a country in the midst of a humanitarian and constitutional crisis. Trump’s foreign policy team and influential Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio have accused Cuba of propping up Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, the country’s disputed leader. National Security Advisor John Bolton claimed there are more than 20,000 Cuban troops in South America providing security for Maduro.
Cuba vigorously denied the charges. Indeed, on the day Crist arrived in Cuba, the country’s Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla called Bolton a “pathological liar” and demanded he back up his accusations with evidence. Intelligence and diplomatic experts have also questioned Cuba’s influence in Venezuela given its own economic hardships, according to the New York Times, though the country has undoubtedly supported Maduro against calls for him to step aside.
During his stay in Cuba, Crist and Rodriguez Parrilla were photographed together in a picture published by Granma, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party. Chief of Staff Austin Durrer accompanied Crist on the trip, according to U.S. House travel records.
Durrer said there was not any specific reason why Crist did not publicize his travel there. “The goal was to get a better understanding of the situation,” he said.
Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott, a Cuban hardliner, called Crist’s visit to the island “an absolute disgrace" and alleged that “the money he and any staff spent in Havana was sent to Caracas to keep Maduro and his brutal regime in power.”
Crist has joined most of the Florida Congressional delegation in calling for Maduro to turn over power to Interim President Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by Venezuela’s national assembly, the United States and dozens of allies as the country’s legitimate leader. Shortly after returning from Cuba, Crist released a statement calling on Maduro to "step down and end the senseless killing of his own civilians, who yearn for nothing more than freedom and a better tomorrow.”
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The Center for Democracy in the Americas, the organization that paid Crist’s travel, has been critical of Trump’s involvement in Cuba and Venezuela. The organization’s executive director Emily Mendrala recently told the Miami Herald that Trump’s policies toward Cuba were “mean-spirited” and his administration’s attempts to "exploit events in Venezuela to settle Cold War scores with Cuba is a distraction from real needs in Venezuela.”