WASHINGTON — Freshman Representative Seth Moulton has a great tour guide in Havana this week: Representative Jim McGovern, a Cuba aficionado and advocate for normalized relations who has visited more than 16 times since his first trip in 1979.
On a sticky, humid morning on Monday, the pair of Massachusetts congressmen broke away from the congressional delegation they are traveling with as part of President Obama’s historic trip to Cuba after more than half a century of hostility.
At the top of the pair’s agenda? Shopping in downtown Havana. Specifically, buying Cuban cigars for Moulton’s barber back in Peabody.
“Jim and I snuck off for a little bit by ourselves. I was grateful to have a veteran of travel to Cuba to go along with me,” Moulton said in a phone interview shortly after the excursion as Obama and President Raul Castro of Cuba held a press conference following the presidents’ first meeting.
Moulton said he and McGovern communicated with the locals in broken Spanish. “They were very eager to meet with us,” he said. “Every place we go there are people lining the road waving to us.”
Moulton and McGovern are part of a 39-member, bipartisan congressional delegation that includes Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, and Representatives David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, and Peter Welch of Vermont.
The delegation arrived on Sunday afternoon and had a photo-op with Obama in the evening. The group attended a reception with Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker for US-Cuban business interests.
The delegation dined separately at a Cuban “paladar,” a private restaurant (as opposed to state-run one) serving homemade octopus, shrimp, pumpkin soup, a traditional Cuban beef stew, and lime pie for dessert.
Some then went to a concert organized by McGovern where his “old friend” Carlos Varela performed. Varela, whom McGovern called the “Bob Dylan of Cuba,” has been intensely critical of the Cuban regime in his music.
On Monday the delegation had breakfast with Cuban society leaders — including chefs, activists, and bloggers — who embrace free-market principles. The group also was to meet with Cuban government officials and representatives of the US Chamber of Commerce and Major League Baseball. On Monday evening they were scheduled to attend the state dinner hosted by Castro.
Before departing Tuesday evening, the delegation will attend an exhibition baseball game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays. (The Baltimore Orioles were the last Major League Baseball team to play in Cuba, in 1999).
McGovern, who first visited Cuba as a college student at American University in 1979, when he traveled the whole island, spoke to the Globe while walking in Old Havana near the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where American novelist Ernest Hemingway once lived.
“I’ve been working to try to change our policy for decades and to have this day finally come and to be able to be here is a real thrill,” said McGovern in an emotional interview. “I wasn’t quite sure I’d still be in Congress when that day finally arrived.”
McGovern, who visited Cuba most recently in August with Secretary of State John Kerry for the reopening of the US embassy, called the half-century of isolationism from Cuba a “relic of the Cold War that didn’t help the Cuban people.”
“I give the president great credit for having the guts to do something that quite frankly should have been done decades ago,” he said.
Now, McGovern said, it’s time for Congress to do its job and lift the trade embargo and travel restrictions. He’s co-sponsored bills to accomplish that.
“We’re close to having the votes to be able to do that. The problem is getting leadership in the House and Senate to schedule a debate and vote,” McGovern said. “It ironic that critics of the change in policy say Cuba needs to practice democracy more. Well, maybe the United States Congress needs to practice democracy more and allow Congress to deliberate on this issue and vote up or down.”
Obama is the first president to set foot in Cuba since Calvin Coolidge visited in 1928.
During his press conference with Castro on Monday, Obama said, “The fact that we have such a large congressional delegation with Democrats and Republicans with us is an indication that there is growing interest inside of Congress for lifting the embargo.”Tracy Jan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @TracyJan.