WASHINGTON — Five Illinois Democrats — Sen. Dick Durbin and Reps. Jan Schakowsky, Robin Kelly, Bobby Rush and Cheri Bustos — are in Cuba with President Barack Obama, making the first presidential visit in 88 years.
Unlike Obama, all five Illinois lawmakers have been to the island through the years. It has been off limits to most U.S. travelers since the U.S. broke relations with Cuba in 1961 and imposed economic sanctions.
This is Kelly’s third trip to Cuba. Last year, as relations between the nations thawed, Kelly, a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee was there twice, on fact-finding visits dealing with medical education and agriculture.
The Illinois lawmakers are among about 20 members of Congress tapped by the Obama White House to be members of the “presidential delegation.” Durbin flew with Obama on Air Force One while the others boarded a separate military aircraft. The White House covers all the hotel, meals and transportation costs.
Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker also is in Havana with the president, laying the groundwork for potential U.S.-Cuba business ties starting with a visit to Cuba last October.
Obama toured Havana on Sunday with Michelle, daughters Malia and Sasha, who are on spring break from Sidwell Friends school, and Marian Robinson, the first lady’s mother.
“I’ve been involved in Cuba issues for awhile,” Schakowsky said in an interview Saturday.
She is a member of the House Cuba Working Group, and among the lawmakers, including Durbin, who worked for the release of Alan Gross, the U.S. government contractor who was imprisoned in Cuba for more than five years.
Durbin visited Gross in a Cuban prison in 2012, returned to the island for his release in December 2014 and was back in January 2015 as a member of the first congressional delegation to travel to Cuba once Obama announced his new Cuba policy.
The short visit — the trip wraps up on Tuesday — includes a state dinner at the Palace of the Revolution; a speech to the Cuban people at the Gran Teatro de La Habana; and a Major League Baseball exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team at the Estadio Latinoamericano.
Schakowsky said she just might be doing some scouting for the Cubs at that game.