Politics

President Obama wasn't the only one in Cuba. Here's what the members of Congress were doing

Seven California members joined President Obama's trip to Cuba, and while he was off making history — meeting with President Raul Castro, chatting with dissidents, shaking lots of hands — the lawmakers explored the island nation.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) led the group, which included Reps. Sam Farr (Carmel) and Barbara Lee (Oakland).

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) said by email that the group walked through old Havana Monday to learn about its history and how Cuban society operates.

“It feels like it’s Throwback Thursday every day of the week here,” he said.

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Becerra also praised the food, particularly a Cuban beef stew he ate at a paladares, or small privately owned restaurant, Sunday.

“I had the traditional ropa vieja dish last night and it was delicious,” he said.

Becerra said the Cuban people he met seemed to appreciate Obama’s visit.

“There’s lots of hope about the fruits that this trip will bear,” he said.

Artwork in #Havana: "So what do you think of President Obama's visit?" #CubaVisit

A photo posted by Congressman Xavier Becerra (@repbecerra) on

The House members met Monday with officials from Major League Baseball in advance of Tuesday’s game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National team.

Several members were present when Obama addressed Cubans in a televised speech Tuesday morning.

“As I look at the crowd, I sense that many are anxious — not so much nervous, but hopeful and sensing an opening for authentic opportunity,” Becerra said later via email. “We should not fear change. We should embrace it.”

Excitement was high before the baseball game Tuesday, with the Cuban crowd dancing, singing and applauding starting 40 minutes before the game.

When Obama entered the stadium, the ovation was deafening, Becerra said by phone. The trip is just the first step in a new relationship between the two countries, he said.

“It’s the beginning. There’s a lot of work to do still,” he said.

Cuban memories

For Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), the trip completes a circle that began when she first visited Cuba as a 19-year-old in 1973. She and the group of anti-war civil rights activists she traveled with stayed two months to construct homes, and she returned repeatedly.

“I was young, and Cuba was really hated at that time,” she said before leaving for Cuba. “To then go 43 years later with the U.S. government and the president of the United States, oh my God. You can only imagine what that will feel like.”

Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) first visited Cuba when he was teaching community psychology at Cal State Long Beach to write a paper on mental health issues there. On that mid-1980s trip, and the times he’s returned since, Lowenthal said he’s been impressed by the warmth the average citizen expresses toward the Unites States.

Lowenthal said before leaving that it was the president’s trip, but he hoped for a chance to talk with Cubans about human rights and what humanitarian needs the country might have.

“As we begin to expand our relationship, the Cubans have a responsibility. We want to establish these relationships, but there’s still not freedom of the press, freedom to dissent. Lots of people are in jail for speaking out,” he said.

sarah.wire@latimes.com

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Read more about the 55 members of California's delegation at latimes.com/politics

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