Vermont state lawmakers heading to Cuba for pointers on education, environment

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Vermont Watchdog

Vermont state lawmakers are heading to Cuba to glean insights from the communist country’s approaches to education, health care and the environment.

“I’ve always wanted to go to Cuba,” said state Rep. Mary Sullivan, D-Burlington. “It would be interesting to see the place and look at their educational system, agriculture and health care.”

Sullivan, the lawmaker organizing the delegation, invited every member of the Vermont General Assembly to make the 1,500-mile trek to Havana the week of Town Meeting Day in March. Lawmakers are on break during that week of the 2017 legislative session.

“It’s a learning experience, so we’d go down there to learn,” she said.

Photo by Osvaldo Salas (Public Domain)

REVOLUCION!: Cuban revolutionary brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro, left, meet with Argentine Marxist guerrilla leader Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara in 1959.

The trip, which will not include opportunities to meet with dissidents, comes after President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced the restoration of diplomatic relations in 2014. The change involved opening a U.S. embassy in Havana and easing travel restrictions, but did not include a lifting of the U.S. embargo.

According to Sullivan’s itinerary, lawmakers will “learn about governance in a unique developing country that espouses socially based solutions and community centered ideals.”

The first half of the eight-day trip will involve cultural enjoyments including baseball, salsa dancing and a visit to the Ernest Hemingway Lookout Farm. Lawmakers will attend lectures on Cuban government and politics by University of Havana faculty and get briefed on Cuban history.

On day four, legislators will tour a neighborhood school to study Cuba’s education system “and the values it attempts to impart on its students.” They also will visit the Pedagogical Institute of Education — an ideological training center for teachers — to discuss education policy and “challenges regarding education in Vermont.”

The final leg of the tour will involve meeting elected delegates in their offices to explore challenges of governance “in a top-down model of government.” Legislators also will discuss the “cautious transformation” of Cuban government and economy and its impact on the U.S. embargo.

On policy, the itinerary lists an opportunity to learn “the Cuban approach to medical care which has resulted in health statistics that have been comparable to the richest nations in the world” and to visit the offices that formulate environmental and energy policy.

State Sen. David Zuckerman, a Progressive endorsed by Bernie Sanders, and the Democratic Party’s nominee for lieutenant governor, said he welcomed the travel opportunity.

“I think going to Cuba, just like going to many other places to learn about different systems, cultures and policies, is probably a good idea. They have some of the best primary health care in the world and there are things we could learn from them,” he said.

Other state lawmakers were appalled at Sullivan’s invitation.

“Cuba’s a communist country and I don’t want anything do with it,” said state Rep. Thomas Terenzini, R-Rutland Town. “I’ll let the socialist Democrats and Progressives spend their money in a communist country.”

Terenzini said he planned to be with his constituents in Rutland Town on Town Meeting Day, adding that he wouldn’t support sending any U.S. government representatives to Cuba “unless the Castro brothers were dead, either from old age or being overthrown.”

Asked if he thought Sullivan’s itinerary offered any educational benefit, Terenzini replied, “She doesn’t want to meet with the real Cubans, the ones that have been persecuted.”

State Rep. Job Tate, R-Mendon, who toured Cuba while on U.S. Navy deployment to Guantanamo Bay, agreed with Terenzini.

“The Vermont legislators who would likely go on this would go because they’re enamored with the socialist narrative in Cuba and how their science is so advanced,” he said.

Tate called the trip an “opportunity to fawn over the work of the communist regime.” He said he saw a different side of Cuba during his work on perimeter road with the Navy.

“There’s not a whole lot to celebrate. … I looked at Cuba through binoculars over minefields and barbed wire and I’ve seen the absolute poverty.

“This little town called Caimanera, they’re in a real sad state, and if a bunch of Vermont legislators want to fly in to Havana and feel good about themselves and get a guided tour without trying to see those who have been jailed for their ideas, I think it’s shameful.”

U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower imposed sanctions in 1960 after Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro overthrew U.S.-backed Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, founded a one-party communist state and seized control of American-owned oil refineries.

Despite Obama’s normalizing of relations with the communist country, the embargo, maintained by Congress, aims to pressure the Cuban government to replace its dictatorship with democratic reforms and embrace human rights.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio criticized Obama for visiting Cuba earlier this year. Rubio, citing 8,600 political arrests of Cuban citizens in 2015, said the president’s visit amounted to standing with the oppressors.

In an email, Tate asked Sullivan if Vermont lawmakers would visit dissidents jailed for speaking out against the Castro regime. She replied, “I really believe it would be better if we left politics out of the visit.”

When asked if he thought visiting a dictatorial regime without demanding reforms might be viewed as controversial, Zuckerman said going on the trip was better than not going.

“I don’t think it’s a bad idea to have relationships with people with whom you have good trading relationships,” Zuckerman said. “The way to improve relations is to have open and productive dialog as opposed to isolationism.”

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., led a Congressional delegation to Cuba in January 2015, The all-Democrat delegation was the first to visit Cuba following Obama’s move to normalize relations.