How Barbara Lee’s 30-year Cuba Campaign Paid Off
The April 9, 2009, memo has a simple title: “Reflections by Comrade Fidel.”
In it, the Cuban leader documents a meeting at his Havana home with East Bay Rep. Barbara Lee, a woman he lauded for great “political courage” as the then-leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, and for more than two decades an activist for normalizing relations with the island nation.
Lee and her delegation met that day for five hours with President Raul Castro in the first face-to-face session between U.S. lawmakers and Cuban leaders in at least five years. Both brothers, Lee recalled, expressed hope that the newly elected President Obama would change history and restore ties between the two countries.
Last week, as she touched down on U.S. soil from another trip to Cuba — her 21st — the Oakland Democrat got the call: Obama was announcing a thawing of relations, an exchange of prisoners and the freeing of American Alan Gross, whom Lee had visited several times during his five-year Cuban captivity.
“I took it as a mission to get him out,” she said of Gross, who publicly thanked Lee as one of the legislators who made his freedom possible. “It was important to move all the obstacles to normalize — and this was an obstacle.”
Many had a role in Gross’ freedom, she added, but, “I knew what I had to do. And we never lost hope.”
Obama’s move represented something of a vindication of Lee’s behind-the-scenes work in Cuba dating back to 1977, when she made her first trip for the National Conference of Black Lawyers to talk to Cubans about their country’s judicial system and race relations.
A connection is made
She developed a connection to the island’s Afro-Hispanic culture and the people whose economic struggles were intensified by the U.S. trade embargo, she said. The trips and her introductions to many average Afro-Cubans — “who looked just like me, who acted just like me” — cemented her belief that the embargo was an unjust burden on the people of the island nation.
“I wanted other people to see ... so they could make their own mind up,’’ she said.
As an aide to then-Rep. Ron Dellums, Lee facilitated a landmark 1978 visit by prominent African Americans, including Bay Area journalist Belva Davis, who interviewed Fidel Castro.
The remarkable 2009 memo from “Comrade Fidel” — which includes a detailed account of his discussions with American lawmakers, and his thoughts regarding geopolitical changes with the election of Obama — also indicated Castro’s abiding admiration for Lee. He held her in esteem, he said, both for her attention to Cuba and for casting “the sole vote against Bush’s genocidal war in Iraq” in the House.
“It was unbeatable proof of political courage,” he wrote in the memo, which Lee supplied to The Chronicle. “For that, she deserves every honor.”
Lee also earned Castro’s gratitude for her part in returning 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez to Cuba in 2000.
The boy was found in an inner tube off the coast of Florida after his mother died in an attempt to flee to the United States. Cuban American lawmakers and conservatives pushed for Elian to stay in Miami, while Castro insisted he be returned.
“We met with Fidel five times, and we talked about Elian’s case,” Lee recalled last week. “He said, 'You need to know the family.’”
Lee’s meeting with Elian’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez Quintana, made the front page of the New York Times. She also met with the boy’s grandmothers. “I told them, 'We’ve got to get you to Capitol Hill,’” she said.
Elian returns home
She accompanied the women in meetings with members of Congress to make the family’s case. Days later, U.S. agents took the boy from Miami and delivered him to his father for a flight home to Havana, where he has lived ever since.
Since then, Lee has been a catalyst for establishing direct flights from Oakland to Havana in 2011, and has paved the way for hundreds of American students to study medicine there. She has facilitated visits by an Oakland amateur baseball team to Cuba and led trips for clergy, educators and legislators to help them understand the concerns, the economy and the people of the island.
Lee is hugely popular with progressives — her vote against the Iraq War still prompts many Bay Area liberals to slap “Barbara Lee speaks for me” bumper stickers on their cars — but she’s also been sharply criticized by conservatives who say she ignores the Castro brothers’ human rights abuses.
“The left views this as an island that should be opened up, and (they say) if we shine a light on it, everything will be fine ... and the right views it as a dictatorship that does very bad things to its people,” said Bill Whalen, a fellow with the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Lee’s close contacts with Castro help him mask the fact that “he jailed his people, he has cracked down on religion, he is anti-gay rights,” Whalen argues. “How this guy could be a hero to the Democratic establishment escapes me.”
LGBT leaders agree that Cuba’s record on gay rights is lacking, but some of them say strengthening ties with the U.S. might help.
Opening a direct line
“Opening communication and personal interactions with Cuban LGBTs will change what we know, how we know it, and how to respond to the breadth and depth of the needs of our hermanas y hermanos en Cuba,” said Gloria Nieto, a South Bay LGBT activist. “Personally, I look forward to hearing directly from the island, not through cultural or revolutionary or anti-Castro filters.”
Lee insists she hasn’t pulled any punches when discussing such issues with the Castros.
“I’ve met with the leaders of the human rights movement there,” she said. “I’m not carrying the Cuban flag.”
Lee hopes Obama will make a trip himself to Havana before he leaves office or that Raul Castro will visit Washington. She said she expects Republicans to do what they can in Congress to block normalization of relations, perhaps by denying funding for a U.S. embassy in Havana or refusing to confirm an ambassador to Cuba. Those actions, she said, will not deter her decades-long drive to lift the embargo.
“It is in our own national security interests” to boost trade and push for human rights improvements, Lee said. “So you can’t let up.”
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