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People should ‘inform themselves’ on Cuba situation, says Rep. Albio Sires

Retiring Democrat describes last straw in Congress

Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J., is retiring at the end of this term after 16 years in Congress.
Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J., is retiring at the end of this term after 16 years in Congress. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A group came into Albio Sires’ office not long ago to talk about human rights. “They’re telling me about human rights violations here and there, and they don’t mention Cuba,” Sires says.

“So I said, are you people finished? Look, don’t come to my office if you’re going to be selective,” he recalls.

Sires will retire at the end of this term after 16 years in Congress. While he’s feeling good about his legacy — especially how the recent infrastructure package will boost transportation in his home state of New Jersey — he’s also frustrated.

“The situation in Cuba is getting worse and worse,” says Sires, the only Democrat among seven Cuban Americans currently serving in the House. His party was slow to react last summer, he says, as President Miguel Díaz-Canel cracked down on protests in the streets.

Sires sat down with CQ Roll Call to talk about his “fascination” with foreign policy, his old basketball injuries and fleeing communism in 1962. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: When you decided to retire, you said the “whole atmosphere in Washington is awful.” What was the last straw for you?

A: You want to know what the last straw for me was? It was when we were trying to push the human rights resolution on Cuba last year. It was a simple resolution, nothing controversial — we didn’t say anything about the embargo. We just talked about condemning the way the Cuban government treated the people. It took us four months. And to the credit of Steny Hoyer, we were able to get it done, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and myself. 

But I was very discouraged by that, because we’ve done resolutions on human rights in Myanmar and other places around the world, and it took maybe a couple of weeks. 

The other thing that’s discouraging is this push to get rid of the police, get rid of ICE, cut the defense budget. That’s not where I’m at. 

And finally, it took us months and months to get this infrastructure bill done. Everybody kept saying, let’s do both bills. I felt the infrastructure bill was so good that we needed to do that right away. It’s not that I don’t like what’s in Build Back Better. It’s just that it’s tough to sell it to the American people with so many good things in there that I believe in. That’s how I approached the speaker’s job in [the New Jersey General Assembly]. We never did 20,000 things on one bill. We did the things we could do, and then built momentum.

Q: You went to college on a basketball scholarship. How good were you, and did you ever play any pickup games with your colleagues on Capitol Hill?

A: By the time I got to D.C., I hadn’t played in so many years. I went to the gym and met some of the guys there, but I really did not play pickup.

In college, I was one of those white guys who couldn’t jump. And quite frankly, I went to the wrong school, because they had a type of offense that was run and gun, and that was not my game. The reason I went to St. Peter’s College [in Jersey City] is because my parents did not want me to go away. My mother felt that she got us out of Cuba, and she was going to lose us if I went to some of these good schools that offered me scholarships. I visited Brown University and others, and my mother said, “You’re going to go there?” like it was the end of the world. I felt I needed to stay around. They made such a sacrifice. 

It’s great to play basketball, but when you get old, all the injuries come back — a bad hip, a bad knee. I grew up playing on cement in the city, and that’s not good for the joints. 

Q: What did you enjoy most and least about being a member of Congress?

A: When I first got there, I developed a real good camaraderie with some of the members. We had a big class in 2006, and it was very interesting to meet different people from different parts of the country. What I did not enjoy was going back and forth, getting on the train. I don’t know how these people from California do it. I would never, never be part of Congress if I had to go to California, because I have a daughter in Los Angeles and I have to think twice about even going out there with my wife. It’s taxing. 

And [in Washington], you’re by yourself most of the time. I don’t hang around bars, I don’t drink, I don’t gamble. So I never hung around the Democratic Club or anything like that, like some people enjoy doing. I should have gotten a roommate to save some money, and it would have been a lot more fun. 

Q: What advice would you give to a member just starting out?

A: My advice would be to get an experienced staff and work from there. Because if you get staff that is not experienced in Washington, you’re going to come across a lot of roadblocks. I was fortunate. My chief of staff has been with me since I was a mayor, and he was my chief of staff when I was the speaker in New Jersey. He came with me to Washington, and he knew how I felt about things, what kind of people I wanted to hire in my office. I didn’t have to talk to him a lot, because we’ve talked for so many years.

Q: You’re obviously watching the situation in Ukraine as Russia invades. How have you seen attitudes towards Russia change in Congress over your years on the Foreign Affairs Committee?

A: I’ve been shocked the last few weeks by the rhetoric coming from some of the members regarding Russia. Some are trying to use this situation to sell to the world that Biden is inept, that Biden doesn’t know what he’s doing. They’re focusing on this year’s election and two years beyond that. 

I know Russia, and I know Putin. This guy, while we sleep, is plotting how to hurt the United States. And I can’t believe how stupid this former President [Trump] is to call him a genius. It’s almost unbelievable to me how ignorant the former president was of what Putin has done in Georgia, in Crimea.

I really think some of these congresspeople don’t pay enough attention to foreign policy. I bet if you get a group of them and tell them to point out where some of these countries are, they won’t even be able to tell you. Luckily, they have staff.

Quick hits

Last book you read? I read one about Bill Russell, called “Go Up For Glory.” And a lot of Spanish books. I read “Don Quixote” twice, and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

In politics, can the ends justify the means? You’re trying to get to a good ending, but I never believe you should run a guy over with a truck to get there. 

Least popular opinion? That people should inform themselves better on the situation in Cuba. They think if you take the embargo away, things are going to go back to some sort of normalcy. No. It’s a dictatorship. 

If you could do any other job, what would it be? I’ve been a mayor, I’ve been an assemblyman, I’ve been a speaker, and I’ve been a congressman. The best was being mayor. Why? Because I get to see people enjoy the things I do. You’re so much closer to the people. 

Closest friends across the aisle? I enjoy my relationships with Mark Green and Chris Smith. And Mario Diaz-Balart is a good friend.

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