While President Joe Biden blocked Cuba’s Communist Party leaders from the Americas Summit on Democracy in Los Angeles last week, California Senators seemingly welcomed a top-ranking Cuban diplomat into the senate chambers with open arms.

Biden based his decision on the regime’s abysmal human rights record and the ongoing repressive wave with thousands of kids, activists, journalists and parents jailed after they all poured into the streets of Cuba last July, calling for an end to decades of government repression.

Biden also has kept Communist Cuba, which supports Russia’s war in Ukraine, on the U.S. State Department’s listing of state sponsors of terror – a distinction only applied to three other regimes: Syria, Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (also known as North Korea).

Yet just before the America’s Summit, California’s State Senators stood and gave Cuba’s Communist regime a rousing, standing ovation. 

Cuba’s Regime Just Jail Thousands Who Hit The Streets Last July Calling For Freedom

By way of background, here’s the first sentence of the most recent Human Rights Watch report on Cuba:

“The Cuban government continues to repress dissent and deter public criticism, including through brutal abuse against massive anti-government demonstrations in July 2021. It routinely relies on long and short-term arbitrary detention to harass and intimidate critics, independent activists, artists, protesters, and others.”

You can find similar descriptions in a host of international human rights organizations’ reports on Cuba

Yet California’s State Senate leaders called it “a distinct honor” to welcome Cuba’s Deputy Chief of Mission to the U.S. as a “very special dignitary” into the Senate chambers, an infrequent practice in years past to publicly introduce international leaders to the state’s most senior legislative leaders. 

Here’s a link to see the CA State Senate legislative season where Cuba’s Deputy Mission Chief addresses Senators right at the start, about the two-minute mark.

At the start of the Senate’s May 26 session, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego, noted that she was “incredibly honored” to introduce Alejandro Garcia del Toro, deputy chief of mission to the embassy of Cuba in D.C. 

Atkins noted that del Toro was being escorted to the chambers by the chair of the Senate’s Latino Caucus, Sen. Maria Elena Durazo – a fellow Democratic Senator from LA – and then proceeded to summarize his diplomatic experience as a former ambassador to the Bahamas, along with two stints in D.C. and a law degree from the University of Havana. 

Atkins, who mentioned she’s traveled to Cuba twice, added that del Toro was in town to meet with local labor leaders, and that he would be attending Sacramento’s Central Labor Council’s Salute to Labor annual dinner.

Yet with all that background research, nobody bothered to mention all the Cuban kids in prison for protesting last July. 

Not a word about the fact that the distinct honor they bestowed upon del Toro is a privilege that ordinary Cuban’s don’t get: Access to their own government, much less a chance to dissent.

Not a word about still being classified as a state sponsor of terror by the U. S. State Department. 

A Warm, Wonderful California Welcome

Instead, Atkins and the state senate offered Cuba’s regime a “warm, wonderful California welcome,” in her own words. 

Along with an open mic. 

“Despite the very bad narrative that is common to hear in the U.S. media about Cuba,” Del Toro said, “we can assure you Cuba is not a threat to the U.S. Cuba is a neighbor country of the U.S.” 

“One of the main goals of the Cuban government, even of the Cuban people, is to try to have a better relations, mutual and respectful relations with the U.S. and that includes of course mutual benefit relations with the State of California.” 

Ironically, del Toro credited senators – comprised of opposing political parties headed into competitive elections – for “enacting laws for the people of California.”

He neglected to mention that’s a privilege the Cuban government doesn’t bestow upon its own people. 

In Cuba, to have any kind of political opinion, you must be a committed Communist. 

That is the only political option available to any Cuban citizen trying to improve their quality of life or the economy. 

Any Cuban that doesn’t like that and gets vocal about it, faces being beaten up, jailed or forced to go into quiet exile, where of course they are expected to work hard abroad and send money back home — to help finance the military-police state. 

Now, I understand the concept of engagement with closed regimes. 

It’s supposed to democratize them, open their economies up. 

Yet I think the historical record raises questions whether this kind of one-sided, quiet engagement just opens up limited economic opportunities for a few and hinders progress on democracy, fair labor standards or human rights for the majority. 

I don’t hear about great labor standards in China, Vietnam or Cuba. 

I wonder how much Northern California labor leaders really know about labor conditions inside Cuba’s hotels on the island or sugar and tobacco plantations?

I wonder if they asked? 

Do they realize that just like political parties, the Cuban government controls labor unions? 

I wonder if these local labor leaders are in favor of having the federal government run their unions?

Don’t forget that Cuban officials also have zero tolerance for any kind of independent media and aren’t very friendly at all toward any kind of organized religion.

The only people who can have a say inside Cuba are Communists. 

Going Local

My own parents were among the many who were forced to leave Cuba in the 1960s because they were Catholics and not Communists. Thus, I was born and grew up in Southern California, granting me a unique right under the U.S. Constitution – I’d argue even a responsibility – to ask questions as a free person about government decisions.

Now, I didn’t get much information from the bureaucrats at the CA Senate Office of International Relations, which organizes these kinds of presentations, or from Atkins, the state senator that organized this public introduction. 

The Senate Office on International Relations didn’t seem excited at all to talk about how this invitation went out.

Oftentimes, these offices are all about international engagement until there’s questions about human rights. 

Every government in the world faces these questions.

Free people should never ignore that debate. 

Californians should always ask these questions before agreeing to do business or cultural exchanges.  

That’s real engagement. 

Now, as always in a democracy, when stumped at the higher levels, I went local to find a voice. 

I started with my local delegation of state senators from Orange County to find out what’s up. 

Several California State Senators said once they began to realize who they were honoring and applauding for, a sense of unease took over.

“It was a total blindside,” said Republican State Senator Pat Bates, who represents much of South Orange County.

“I kept wondering who is this person and why we are doing this?” Bates said. 

Democratic State Senator Josh Newman also was surprised by the presentation, noting that he had no idea who was being presented. 

“I wasn’t aware beforehand of arrangements to have the Cuban Chief of Mission give remarks on the Senate floor on May 26th,” Newman texted back to my questions, adding, “I didn’t pose for the photograph with him, nor did I attend any reception held on his behalf following. I do appreciate that it would be a cause of concern and, for many, anger that a representative of the Cuban government appears to have received such a favorable reception and without a discussion as to the significance or symbolism of such an event.”

When asked about how the event was organized and whether human rights issues were addressed with the Cuban representative, Atkins’ office completely sidestepped specific questions and only offered a general statement.

“The Senate is proud to have welcomed representatives from around the globe. There is no question that the US-Cuba relationship is a challenging one. The US continues to press Cuba for important changes that will improve that relationship, and the Senate looks forward to when there can be more interaction between the people of California and the people of Cuba,” read Atkins’ statement. 

Two Orange County Democratic state senators also ran from the debate. 

State Senator Dave Min referred all questions, through a spokesperson, to the Senate Office of International Relations, which promptly punted answering questions to Atkins’ office, which took all day to send back a dry sandwich quote. 

State Senator Tom Umberg, who can be clearly seen standing and applauding the Cuban diplomat in the Senate chamber video, had no comment when I reached out both through text and through an office spokeswoman. 

I also tried to reach out to a host of Latino State Senators on the issue. 

Despite the fact that Atkins seemed to publicly characterize the effort as led by the Latino caucus, virtually no Latino senators – like Durazo or State Sen. Anna Caballero would engage when I directed questions to both of them. 

Caballero, a Northern California Democratic Senator, who introduced del Toro as the presiding officer at the start of the Senate session as a “distinct honor” said through a spokesperson, “Senator Caballero attended this meeting at the request of the PT (Pro Tem Atkins), and led no such efforts. Please reach out to their office for further information.”

State Senator Bob Archuletta, a Democrat who represents a sizable Cuban American community in Downey in the midst of his Southeast LA district, backed hosting the Cuban diplomat and offering him an open mic.

“The California state senate has a long history and tradition of welcoming delegations, diplomats and other special guests to Senate chambers,” Archuletta said through a spokesman. “This is an opportunity to share our democracy and open government with others who sometimes do not have the same opportunities. The Cuban delegation was no different. I look forward to welcoming anybody to witness our great democracy in action.”

Reactions from a Cuban American Neighborhood in Southern California

The view that Cuba’s government is just like “anybody” and “no different” draws a very different reaction when put to those who have experienced Cuba. 

When I read Archuletta’s quotes to Latinos in the district with a knowledge of Cuba, the reaction was pretty much unanimous. 

“Wow.”

“It shows you that’s an uneducated point of view. It shows you no thought for his residents in his district. It’s uninformed and an insult to all democracy-loving people everywhere,” said Mario Guerra, a two-time mayor of Downey who came close in 2014 to himself becoming a Republican State Senator for the district. 

“It says a lot about the State of California,” he said. 

“Cuba is one of the few communist governments that still exist in the world,” said Guerra, questioning Sacramento’s focus on Cuba as opposed to so many other democratic governments that could be offered a chance to introduce themselves to the state senate. 

Guerra, 63, was born in Cuba in 1959 and left on one of the first Freedom Flights from Cuba. He still remembers the exact date, Dec. 21, 1965, and like many Cuban families came to Southern California, helping create vibrant neighborhoods in places like Huntington Park with his family, later moving to Downey. 

He eventually became a successful insurance broker and local deacon at his Catholic Church and served as Downey Mayor from 2006 to 2014, when he ran for State Senate, losing to former State Sen. Tony Mendoza. 

The former Downey mayor also took issue with Atkins’ leadership in recognizing such a regime – especially amidst an ongoing repressive wave – saying it totally ignores the Cuban American experience here in California. 

He was even more taken back by Archuletta’s comments, given that many families in his district are so directly affected by human rights abuses in Cuba. 

“It’s so wrong. It’s laughable for an elected official in the State of California, especially one that represents lots of Cuban Americans … I am embarrassed for him and disappointed.”

“Shame on you. Shame on your leader, Sen. Toni Atkins,” Guerra said, adding the members should take the time to educate themselves on Cuba.

Is California’s State Senate Really Interested in Hearing From the Other Side?

When asked whether there’s an ethical obligation to present another side of Cuba to the State Senate, Newman agreed saying it was a “moral obligation.”

Bates also agreed that it was “reasonable” there should be an opposing viewpoint brought to the Senate, “so we can hear the other side of what’s going on there,” she said. 

A spokesperson for Archuletta said he also would likely be open to hearing from a recognized opposition voice. 

Newman even got curious when I informed him that many Cuban dissidents had attended the LA summit.

Because the Biden Administration blocked Cuba’s regime from the America’s summit, for the first time ever, the voice of Cuba at the democracy summit came from people like Rosa Maria Paya.

Her father, Oswaldo, was a Cuban dissident who successfully led thousands in a signature effort inside Cuba calling for a plebiscite, under the Cuban constitution, about the future of the government. 

After securing the signatures, he was killed suspiciously in a car accident in Havana in 2012. 

His death has never been investigated. Rosa Maria continues to call for investigations into his death and speak out about human rights abuses in Cuba. 

The 10-year anniversary of his death is on July 22. 

David Hoffman, a Pulitzer Prize winning contributing editor with The Washington Post is about to release a book about Paya’s life and untimely death

When I asked her about the message sent by the California State Senate, Rosa Maria Paya lamented the fact that these legislators handed an open mic to one of the world’s most anti-democratic regimes. 

“The Cuba dictatorship applies state terrorism against our people that have been silenced for 63 years. For that reason, it is a victory for the Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan people that their dictators were rightfully left out of last week’s Summit of the Americas,” said Paya through a spokeswoman. 

“However, giving a public platform in the Congress of the State of California, to the Cuban totalitarian regime is a disgrace,” she said. “Particularly when there are over 1,000 political prisoners sitting in Cuban jails, many of whom have been tortured and are serving long sentences for participating in peaceful protests last July 11th.”

Every Cuban deserves a voice, Paya said.

“Hearing from not only the opposition, but from the people of Cuba, is what is right and just. Their voices should be given at minimum the same attention as has been given by the State Congress to the propaganda of the dictatorship.”

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