1. Florida Politics

Focused on Cuba's future, Rep. Castor skips meeting with Raul Castro

TAMPA — One highlight of a congressional delegation's visit to Cuba this week was an impromptu meeting with President Raul Castro.

But not for U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor.

The Tampa Democrat joined five other Democrats on the trip, in part to investigate the latest on staff cuts at the U.S. Embassy there, but she skipped the Castro meeting to attend a previously scheduled Black History Month event back home.

It is time, Castor said Wednesday, to "turn the page on the Castro years."

On April 19, Castro is set to step down for First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel to assume Cuba's highest office.

"I would have looked forward to meeting with the vice president," Castor said. "He is the future. This is a time of major change, the first time in 60 years that a Castro will not be president of Cuba. The United States is largely absent from influencing what happens in Cuba."

She sees the status of the embassy as vital to future relations between the two countries.

The delegation to Havana was led by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and consisted of Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Gary Peters of Michigan and Reps. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, Susan Davis of California and Castor.

Like Castor, all six favor steps toward normalization of relations with Cuba that were taken under former President Barack Obama and walked back under the Trump administration.

The delegation arrived Saturday and all but Castor stayed until Wednesday. She left early for the Tampa event at the Robert W. Saunders Sr. Public Library.

During meetings in Havana with U.S. officials and Cuban leaders, the Congress members discussed challenges that have arisen with the reduction of U.S. Embassy staff by 60 percent in September after a series of mysterious health attacks there.

The embassy now offers no visa services, and key diplomatic positions remain vacant. These include the human rights officer — in a nation criticized by the United States for human rights abuses.

The staff reductions were temporary and carry a 180-day deadline. The State Department must decide March 4 whether to make the cuts permanent, the Miami Herald has reported.

Castor is sending a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asking him to fully staff the embassy, though she said she is not confident it will make a difference.

Castor spoke to reporters in her Tampa offices Wednesday after cancelling a news conference scheduled for José Martí Park, the Ybor City memorial to the hero of Cuba's war of independence from Spain.

The switch came after four local Cuban-Americans who oppose engagement with Cuba showed up at Martí park, but Castor said she would have moved the location anyway.

"That kind of setting is not really conducive to a thoughtful exchange of ideas," Castor said.

One of those who turned out, Rafael Pizano, traveled to Castor's office but was asked to speak with her in private after reporters left.

They talked for 30 minutes, Pizano later said.

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.