President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Health and Human Services Department rejected a request from a top human-rights group to bring humanitarian aid to Cuba on his 1996 trip to meet with dictator Fidel Castro.
Before Xavier Becerra's trip as part of a "fact-finding" congressional delegation to Cuba, the former California lawmaker was asked by Freedom House to bring an aid package including medicine and coloring books for the Cuban people. Becerra refused, according to a December 1996 column by journalist and author Robert Novak.
"The materials they were asked to distribute contained no anti-Castro propaganda but publications as inoffensive as a Christian coloring book for children," Novak wrote in reference to Becerra and a Democratic colleague set to join him on the trip. "The congressmen themselves did not respond to repeated requests by this column to explain their decision, and their aides said they had no answer."
Becerra, now California's attorney general, did not respond to a request for comment on Freedom House’s requests to supply aid to the communist island. Freedom House said it could not provide any record of the specific ask for Becerra's help but did confirm that the organization ran a program where it used people from outside the organization to bring supplies into Cuba.
Becerra's trip to Cuba has long been a source of controversy. The trip came on the eve of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s elections, and Becerra was running to helm the caucus. While he won the vote, every Republican dues-paying member of the bipartisan caucus quit following his trip. Then-congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was unsparing in her criticism, saying that while she rarely agrees with Democrats on Cuba policy, "there's never been a chairman who went on a trip like this as he campaigned for my vote." His refusal to call for free elections either during or after his trip to Cuba is still getting attention as he fights for confirmation in the U.S. Senate.
Becerra's trip to Cuba included a four-hour dinner with Castro, according to a report in the Miami Herald. Though Becerra said the trip was professional "fact-finding," he took steps to get special permission by the Treasury Department for his wife and children to join the delegation.
Becerra’s Cuba trip was organized by Alicia Torres, a longtime pro-Castro activist. He was joined by his fellow California Democrat, Esteban Torres. The pro-Castro junket came as the United States was levying renewed sanctions on Cuba; it left its mark on Rep. Torres, who told the Herald upon return that he "just didn’t see" any evidence of Castro’s human-rights abuses while on the island.
Becerra defended his trip as part of his duty as a congressman. "As an American citizen who has had the privilege now of being elected to Congress," Becerra told NPR after the trip, "I should be as educated as I can be on a number of issues." A decade later, Becerra voted to end America's embargo on Cuba.
Even Becerra’s fellow Democrats questioned his motivations at the time of his trip. Then-congressman Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said that Becerra "didn’t give me an indication that he was going there to challenge the dictatorship," adding that "it seemed to me his focus was more on finding ways to justify his view that U.S. policy is wrong." Bringing American supplies to Cuba would have undercut Becerra’s pro-Castro perspective.
During his years in Congress, Becerra remained a vocal advocate for close connections to the communist island.