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Biden’s HHS pick refused to support free elections in Cuba in 1997 after meeting with Fidel Castro

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President Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, refused in 1997 to call for free elections in Cuba. He made this decision following a meeting with then Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, Fox News reported Tuesday. A decade later, Becerra voted to end the U.S. trade embargo against the communist island nation. It is a continuing and disturbing pattern to some foreign policy analysts and lawmakers who’ve condemned the communist nation’s actions since the Cuban revolution.

When he was a Democratic congressman in 1997, Becerra stirred up controversy with his House Hispanic Caucus colleagues by taking a trip to Cuba to meet the communist dictator. Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart from South Florida, both members of the caucus Becerra chaired, at the time said that they were “personally insulted” by his four-day trip and resigned from the caucus until Becerra “demonstrates minimal respect for the rights of Cubans to be free and calls for free elections for that oppressed island,” according to Fox News.

Diaz-Balart said at the time, according to The Los Angeles Times, that he would not contribute membership dues to the caucus until Becerra “demonstrates minimal respect for the rights of Cubans to be free and calls for free elections for that oppressed island.”

Later, Becerra said he could not issue a call for free and fair elections.

“This is an issue that the caucus doesn’t take positions on,” he said, so he could not make a statement, according to The Hill, per Fox News.

Aides to Becerra brushed off criticisms at the time, according to Fox News, saying he had attempted to hear from all sides and had spoken to both Cuban dissidents and Castro himself.

He later defended the trip during an appearance on National Public Radio, saying: “As an American citizen who has had the privilege now of being elected to Congress […] I should be as educated as I can be on a number of issues.”

Becerra also criticized his colleagues’ decision to resign from the caucus due to his trip.

“I’m very disappointed that the two members decided to take this action. I consider them friends,” Becerra said. “And I know that they are very passionate about the issue. Certainly, it — the whole issue of Cuba is one that the caucus because there has not been a strong consensus, has decided not to take on. I — as the new chair of the caucus, it was not my intention to change that policy either. They chose, however, to make it an issue.”

A decade later in 2007, Becerra supported an amendment from Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) that would have softened the decades-long trade embargo against Cuba by making it easier to ship farm goods to Caribbean nation, according to Fox News. He backed an additional amendment from Rangel that banned the funding of the embargo against the authoritarian regime.

Significantly, a vital group of Senate centrists—such as Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Mitt Romney (Utah), and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.)—have yet to say whether they will vote to confirm Becerra, according to Fox News. Senate Republicans have questioned him on his liberal record and have expressed concerns over his lack of experience in healthcare.

You can follow Douglas Braff on Twitter @Douglas_P_Braff.

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Cuomo says he’ll ‘fully cooperate’ with NY AG’s review of sexual harassment claims

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said Wednesday that he will “fully cooperate” with the state attorney general’s independent review into sexual harassment allegations made against the currently scandal-ridden governor, saying, “I fully support a woman’s right to come forward.”

Last Wednesday, Lindsey Boylan, who served in his administration for over three years, accused Cuomo of suggesting to her on a 2017 flight that they play strip poker, inappropriate touching, and kissing her on the lips without her consent.

RELATED: ‘Let’s play strip poker’: Fmr. Cuomo aide accuses NY governor of sexual harassment

Following Boylan’s accusations, 25-year-old Charlotte Bennett alleged the governor indicated interest in having an affair with her while she was serving in his administration as a health policy adviser. In a Saturday New York Times report, Bennett told the newspaper that Cuomo asked her if she had “ever been with an older man,” adding that “age doesn’t matter” in relationships.

At Wednesday’s press briefing, the Empire State governor addressed the accusations leveled against him over the past seven days by three women and New York Attorney General Letitia James’ (D) independent review into those claims, which she announced on Monday was formally proceeding.

RELATED: De Blasio ‘sickened’ by Cuomo sexual harassment claims

“As you probably know, the attorney general is doing an independent review, and I will fully cooperate with that review,” Cuomo said at the beginning of his statement. “Now, the lawyers say I shouldn’t say anything when you have a pending review until that review is over. I understand that, I’m a lawyer, too. But, I want New Yorkers to hear from me directly on this.”

“First, I fully support a woman’s right to come forward,” the governor began. “And I think it should be encouraged in every way. I now understand that I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable. It was unintentional and I truly and deeply apologize for it. I feel awful about it, and frankly I am embarrassed by it, and that’s not easy to say. But that’s the truth.”

This echoes what Cuomo said in a Sunday statement about the allegations, in which he stated he “may have been insensitive” during his tenure but charged his accusers of misinterpreting his actions, saying, “I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation… I am truly sorry about that.”

RELATED: Cuomo responds to sexual harassment claims, saying he ‘may have been insensitive’

During his Wednesday remarks, Cuomo iterated “I never touched anyone inappropriately,” repeated that sentence, then said “I never knew at the time that I was making anyone feel uncomfortable” and repeated that one too.

“And I certainly never, ever meant to offend anyone or hurt anyone or cause anyone any pain. That is the last thing I would ever want to do,” he continued. “I ask the people of this state to wait for the facts from the attorney general’s report before forming an opinion. Get the facts, please, before forming an opinion.”

“I also want you to know that I have learned from what has been an incredibly difficult situation for me as well as other people, and I’ve learned an important lesson,” the governor said at the end of his statement. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for whatever pain I caused anyone, I never intended it, and I will be the better for this experience.”

Amid Boylan and Bennett’s allegations, another report of Cuomo sexually harassing a woman has cropped up. On Monday, a woman named Anna Ruch accused the governor of placing his hands on her cheeks—without her consent—at a 2019 wedding reception and asking if he could kiss her. A photograph of the two together at the event has also been circulating on social media.

RELATED: ‘Eat the whole sausage: Gov. Cuomo in hot water for resurfaced video

Asked at Wednesday’s briefing about the pictures that have resurfaced of him being touchy with people, particularly that of him and Ruch, the governor claimed that it is his way of greeting people.

“I understand the opinion of—and feelings of—Ms. Ruch,” Cuomo said. “You can find hundreds of pictures of me making the same gesture with hundreds of people—women, children, men, etc. You can go find hundreds of pictures of me kissing people. […] It is my usual and customary way of greeting.”

Moreover, the governor said that his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, would do the same thing.

“By the way, it was my father’s way of greeting people,” Cuomo said, explaining, “You’re the governor of the state, you want people to feel comfortable, you want to reach out to them.”

He also mentioned that he kisses and hugs legislators and noted that at an event in Queens the other day he hugged pastors and state assembly members.

Furthermore, the governor said that his intent “doesn’t matter,” saying, “What it matters is if anybody was offended by it.”

“But if they were offended by it, then it was wrong,” he added, going on to say that if they were offended or hurt by it, he apologizes.

MORE ON CUOMO: NY dem says state legislature is ‘inching toward’ Cuomo impeachment probe

You can follow Douglas Braff on Twitter @Douglas_P_Braff.

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