Mayor Muriel Bowser heads to Cuba on Saturday for a five-day trade/cultural trip.
School Chancellor Kaya Henderson is going along to discuss education issues. And Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett is also among the large group of regional leaders traveling under the auspices of the Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Before going any further — or farther — on this, please hold your condemnations of such travel.
(One recent social media post in Montgomery County was urging Leggett to go to Minnesota to learn how to remove snow instead of sunny Cuba.)
The truth is the Washington region has an opportunity to take advantage of loosening ties with Cuba. Virginia already is one of the largest trading partners with Cuba, behind Georgia and Louisiana. Gov. Terry McAuliffe completed a trade mission there last month.
In our own cultural and educational trip to Cuba last year with the Smithsonian, one of the biggest surprises was just how big Cuba is physically. Another was the size of its population. Rather than a tiny island off the coast of Miami, it is 700 miles long with a population of about 11 million. If it were a state in the United States, it would be the eighth largest. There are huge mountains in Cuba.
Economic and academic experts say that given the likelihood of slower federal government growth, our Washington region needs to develop more diversified business opportunities.
The subject came up last month during a George Mason University conference on the region’s economy.
“You want to be an early mover with respect to a new opportunity to open up relationships that would be mutually beneficial to Cuba and Virginia, D.C. and the Maryland area,” said Virginia Commerce Secretary Maurice Jones, as reported by the Fairfax County Times. “Hopefully, what that relationship will result in over time is visitors to Virginia from Cuba and vice versa, people buying goods from Virginia in Cuba and vice versa, and companies setting up operations both in Cuba and over here.”
Regional leaders also are discussing a similar trip to Canada in the spring or early summer, which officials say “demonstrates how regionalism can bring Virginia, Maryland and D.C. together at an international level.”
But we are early in the game for liberalizing Cuba policies. Cuba itself remains tightly controlled by Fidel and Raúl Castro. Cubans welcome the opening of their country, but still fear free discussion.
They never know who may be listening, including secret police. Consider the door to Cuba cracked, not flung open.
Expect the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to release more details on the trip this week. And follow reports by NBC4 reporter David Culver, who is going along. (Culver, whose family includes Cuban-Americans, covers Northern Virginia for NBC4 and reported on an emotional family trip there last year.)
■ An easy flight. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx was scheduled to fly Tuesday to Cuba. He’s to sign an agreement to restart commercial air flights to Cuba, the first in more than five decades. Airlines in the United States are said to be lining up to bid on what could be dozens of flights a day.
■ Foxx fire. It’s maybe good Secretary Foxx is getting out of town. He enraged Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly with his comments Friday on the Kojo Nnamdi Politics Hour on WAMU.
Foxx basically whipped Maryland, Virginia and the District for failed leadership with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Rather than encouraging reform and cooperation, Foxx said he’d consider withholding even more federal funds for infrastructure than already has been done.
When your Notebook asked why the federal government won’t provide any “operating” funds for the system that carries tens of thousands of federal workers, Foxx casually said that’s not something the federal government does.
But then, he went on to say that WMATA has had a “sweetheart deal” with the feds.
Never mind that it was Valentine’s Day weekend — the comment drew a flabbergasted phone call from Connolly.
“I, I, I just wanted to react,” Connolly said, controlling himself. “If anyone has a sweetheart deal, it’s the federal government that has a sweetheart deal. It’s getting a free ride on Metro. I don’t know where the secretary is coming from or who informs him.”
Connolly said Foxx should “rethink and retract” his statements.
The Virginia representative noted that “the federal government is the only [Metro] compact member that doesn’t put a dime on the table for operating subsidies,” putting the burden on the local jurisdictions for 100 percent of the costs to run Metro.
Secretary Foxx had said the U.S. Department of Transportation doesn’t fund any operating expenses for mass transit anywhere. Connolly says the National Capital Region is different.
“The largest single beneficiary of daily Metro use is the federal government. And if you want to test that, shut down Metro and see what happens to the federal government,” he said.
Connolly agrees that Metro needs major reforms and that local governments must lead the way. He’s hoping the hiring of new general manager Paul Wiedefeld is the start of that. He just wants the federal government to be a real partner, not a carping overlord focusing on buses and rails, but not who they carry.
“To have a secretary of transportation in a Democratic administration talk that way,” Connolly said, “is deeply troubling. The secretary has to explain himself.”
■ Homeless no more. Mayor Bowser last week unveiled her plan to build new family-friendly shelters in all eight of the city’s wards. Overall, several thousand people turned out at community meetings last Thursday to hear plan details.
Early reports (we watched Bowser talking with Southwest neighbors in Ward 6) suggest there is general agreement that dispersed shelters are more humane than the hulking building that once was D.C. General Hospital.
There are expected questions about why one site or another was chosen, and what resources (human services, health care, public safety) will be assured once the properties open.
It’s in Bowser’s interest for all of this to go as smoothly as possible. Most of the shelters are expected to open in the summer of 2018 — right smack dab in the middle of the next mayor’s race.
■ A final word. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death last week set off a round of both condolences and intense politicking over his replacement in a presidential campaign year.
District citizens will remember Scalia for many things — his losing opposition to same-sex marriage, for example — but perhaps mostly for writing the opinion in the District v. Heller that struck down the city’s tough ban on handguns. The District is still dealing with how to regulate public safety and guns and remain within the Second Amendment ruling Scalia wrote.
Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.