"The reason that things have picked up right now is in part because of the attention that the administration has given to the issue, even before Dec. 17," said Sarah Stephens, who led multiple groups last year sponsored by the Center for Democracy in the Americas. "People wanted to be part of that solution and be part of opening things up."
Of course, along with those serious policy questions, members didn't mind the warm weather and sparkling beaches. Asked what surprised her during her trip, Rep. Robin Kelly responded, "Besides that it was so hot?" Spending a few December days in Havana was likely no great sacrifice for the Chicago-area representative. And McCaskill posted pictures of the classic cars she encountered during her trip.
The increased Capitol Hill focus on Cuba, some say, helped pave the way for Obama's deal to renew diplomatic ties. "It's very important that the president recognize that he's got support on the Hill," said Rep. Barbara Lee, who was on three of the Cuba trips last year and has been more than 20 times since the 1970s. "These visits that members take really help with that."
Lee's colleagues are quick to credit her for her relentless push to change the country's Cuba policy. "Barbara Lee, more than any other human being in the United States, has created this atmosphere," said. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who took his second trip to Cuba with Lee last year. "Everywhere we went in Cuba, they knew Barbara Lee. She was tough."
Members who visited Cuba for the first time said the experience was eye-opening. "You can read in a book or you can listen to somebody, but when you go and see it for yourself you can answer your own questions and actually meet the everyday people there," said Kelly, who made her first two visits last year. "It's a very poor country. When we went to some of the homes—how tiny they were and what people lived off of."
Many were surprised at how much access they were given to talk to locals—even those who disagreed with the Cuban government. "You are surprised by people being willing to talk to you, nobody is prohibiting you from going anywhere or speaking to anyone," said Rep. Karen Bass, who visited last year for the second time. "People are openly critical of lots of things throughout the country—just like we are in our country."
Cleaver, an ordained Methodist minister, was given the opportunity to preach during one of his visits. "No one asked me what I was going to say," he said. "No one gave me acceptable talking points. I delivered a sermon in Havana and later spoke at the Martin Luther King memorial in Havana with complete freedom to say what I wanted to say, to speak about justice and injustice."
While members were surprised at the access they were granted, they also saw economic and health-care opportunities. Several members of the Congressional Diabetes Caucus learned about a drug that drastically reduces the need for amputations in diabetes patients. "What they learned was that Cuba has some cutting edge treatments that aren't available to Americans," said Pierre LaRamee, the executive director of the Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba, which sponsored the trip. "Here was a critical issue where cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba could be of benefit to both countries."