Florida Republican Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar refused to allow California Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat, to sit in on House subcommittee hearing because of Lee’s views on Cuba.
That led to criticism that Salazar was acting like the Cuban regime and devolved later into name-calling.
As is often done on Capitol Hill, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, asked Salazar to allow Lee and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. — neither of whom are committee members — to participate in the Thursday hearing of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The hearing's focus was to be on the Biden administration's policies on private business in Cuba.
Lee wanted to provide a statement and listen in to discuss Cuban entrepreneurship, ways to support human rights in Cuba and reinvigorating U.S. relations with Cuba, her office said. Lee has supported normalizing relations with Cuba.
Salazar responded that Wasserman Schultz was “more than welcome, Barbara Lee is not.”
When Castro, the subcommittee's ranking member, asked for her reasoning, Salazar said, “Because Barbara Lee, who is a member of the Democratic Party is friends with the oppressors and not the Cuban people. Barbara has been friends of Fidel Castro.”
That drew criticism from Castro, the congressman, saying that Salazar's refusal to allow Lee to participate was “unprecedented.”
“You’ve been critical of the government in Cuba, in part, because it suppresses free speech and suppresses different opinion,” Rep. Castro said. “That’s exactly what you are doing here right now. You are suppressing somebody from even sitting here and participating, in the same way the Cuban government has done for decades.”
Castro told NBC News on Friday that he worries Salazar’s action may further erode collegiality in Congress. He said that when he chaired a Foreign Affairs subcommittee, he regularly allowed Republicans he disagreed with to participate.
Lee stood up on her own behalf and while her comments were not captured by the microphones of the committee room, they were captured by others.
“I’m an African American woman who has a point of view. In a democracy, those points of view are allowed and you are doing the same thing the Cuban government is…” she said, according to video posted by The Young Turks.
In a statement issued after she was denied attendance in the subcommittee, Lee called the expulsion “another example of the extreme GOP suppressing freedom of speech and diversity of opinion.” She warned that “if we don’t push back against this silencing, we risk becoming governed by misinformation and wanna-be dictators like (former President Donald) Trump — the death of our democracy.”
Her office later told NBC News that “this is not the first time [Lee] has had to deal with being treated differently, as a Black member of Congress.”
Wasserman Schultz refused to participate unless Lee was also allowed to do so. Wasserman Schultz said she and Salazar share a position on the Cuban regime — Wasserman Schultz has been very critical of the Cuban government — "but we're all provided equal access under the same rules," she said about the hearing.
Salazar's office referred to her Thursday statement when asked for comment. Salazar stated that Lee's presence would have "insulted" Cuban exiles she represents and she called Lee an "apologist" of the Cuban communist regime.
“I exercised my authority as Subcommittee Chairwoman to not allow an off-Committee Member to spread communist propaganda during my Cuba hearing," Salazar said in the statement. "Letting someone as radical as Barbara Lee degrade a hearing on Cuban freedom would insult the Cuban exile community in Miami and amplify regime propaganda.”
The conflict carried on in social media, with Salazar accusing Lee of trying to disrupt the hearing and calling her a communist sympathizer and a mouthpiece for the Cuban regime.
“Your unequivocal support for Fidel Castro, who starved and murdered the Cuban people, is communist propaganda," she said in one of her postings.
Lee responded with a posting tagged to Salazar saying she’d be happy to debate Cuba’s policy and Castro’s legacy with her, “but that would require you actually letting me speak.” She included a screenshot of a 2018 news story about an interview Salazar did with Fidel Castro in the 1990s when she was a journalist.
Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove, D-Calif., who is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, protested Salazar’s action at the hearing, saying Lee is not a pawn of the Cuba regime; “she is a Black woman who was just silenced, denied her rightful voice.”
CORRECTION: (Jan. 19, 2024 6:15 P.M. E.T.) A previous version of this story misstated Rep. Salazar’s response to an NBC News request for comment, which was mistakenly sent to a wrong email address. Rep. Salazar’s office has responded to our query and referred to an earlier statement made on the issue.