A Miami Democrat heads to Cuba on the congressional campaign trail

Florida's Rep. David Richardson, right, who is running for Congress, and Rep. Kionne McGhee talk to the media after their surprise visit to Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center to inspect the facility in October 2017.
Florida's Rep. David Richardson, right, who is running for Congress, and Rep. Kionne McGhee talk to the media after their surprise visit to Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center to inspect the facility in October 2017.

Amid polarizing sentiments in Miami over changing diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, a congressional candidate and state lawmaker elected to represent Little Havana is visiting, well, Havana.

David Richardson is in Cuba Monday on a two-day “listening tour” described as a mission to “better connect with a large constituency” of Florida’s 27th congressional district, which he hopes to represent following the retirement of Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. The Democrat says he wants to “learn more about economic and societal developments” in Cuba following Barack Obama’s 2014 decision to roll back some trade and travel restrictions set into place nearly 60 years ago following Fidel Castro’s rise to power.

His campaign says he will not visit with anyone from the Cuban government while in the country.

“A half-century of isolation did not achieve progress for the everyday Cuban, so I fully support a position of engagement with Cuban civil society,” Richardson said in a statement. “Despite President Trump’s attempts at reversing his predecessor’s progress on foreign policy, I am going to see firsthand how rolling back travel and trade restrictions has changed the lives of the Cuban people, helped private Cuban entrepreneurs, and strengthened the connection between the residents of Little Havana and Havana.”

Though Miami’s Cuban exile community has been known for its hard-line stance against any change that might benefit the island’s repressive government, supporting increased trade and relations with Cuba is a mainstream opinion in the Democratic party. And there have been signs that politics are changing in the historic heart of Miami’s exile community, where liberal, non-Hispanic Democrats have picked up wins in recent years.

But Richardson may be the first congressional candidate in Miami, if not the country, to make a campaign visit to the island in half a century.

According to his campaign, Richardson — the first openly gay lawmaker elected to the Florida Legislature — is meeting in Cuba with the owner and manager of Café Madrigal, which is popular with the island’s gay community. He’s also scheduled a lunch at the privately operated Paladar Atelier, where he plans to talk with the owner about operating a small business on the island and also with an executive of a private Cuban business services company to discuss the differences in catering to Cuban clientele compared to non-Cubans.

Richardson, who speaks Spanish, also plans to tour , a prominent women-led dance company that enrolls local youth.

He’ll stay overnight in a casa particular and return to Miami Tuesday.

Richardson’s visit to Cuba follows a trip in May to Puerto Rico, and continues his courtship of Hispanic voters. The Democratic field to represent a majority-Hispanic district includes Matt Haggman, Michael Hepburn, Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and Donna Shalala — none of whom are Hispanic.

But Richardson’s visit is also notable given that the seat he’s seeking is currently held by Ros-Lehtinen, who staunchly opposed Obama’s rapprochement with Raul Castro’s government and favored Trump’s decision to roll back some of those changes last year — a decision announced in Little Havana. Last week, Ros-Lehtinen was among seven members of Congress who urged Trump to indict Raul Castro for the 1996 shoot-down of two Miami rescue planes flying volunteer missions to spot Cuban rafters.

President Donald Trump powered into East Little Havana and announced a sweeping change in relations intended to rebuke his predecessor’s opening toward the island.

Roughly half of Miami’s Cuban voters continue to oppose lifting the U.S. trade embargo, according to a poll commissioned this month by Telemundo, although those results matter less in a Democratic primary.

Shalala, the frontrunner in the Democratic primary, told the Miami Herald Monday that she would not consider visiting Cuba until the current government relinquishes its grip.

“While I believe that no American should be denied the right to travel freely to Cuba, I personally will never go to Cuba until it is a free country out of deep respect for the exile community here in Miami and my own Cuban-American family, who risked everything to come to the United States,” she said. “The United States government should take a smarter, 21st century approach that empowers the Cuban people, the private sector, entrepreneurs and civil society to spur progress and keep strong pressure on the Cuban regime.”

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