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

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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