It was a quick moment in the first debate of the 2018 Florida Senate race and if you weren't listening closely you might've missed it: Sen. Bill Nelson, the incumbent Democrat locked in a tight race with Governor Rick Scott, revealed that he was barred from entry into Cuba.
It came after Scott accused Nelson of appeasing the Castro regime for supporting President Obama's efforts to normalize relations with the Communist-run Island Nation just 90 miles of the coast of the United States.
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"Indeed, we've got a problem in this hemisphere, not only with Maduro and Chavez before him, but also with Cuba and Nicaragua. And indeed, they have seen my position of the anti-Castro for so many years that one time, when I requested to go to Cuba to see the imprisoned fellow American that was there for four years, they will not let me in the country, because I've been so harsh," Nelson said.
Later on, he emphasized the point by saying, "The Cuban government will not let me come to Cuba because I have been so vigorously anti-Castro for years and years."
This was the first instance CNN could find of Nelson talking about being barred from travel to the island.
According to Nelson spokesman Ryan Brown, the Senator was denied a visa in 2014 when he was asked by the wife of Alan Gross to visit her husband, who was imprisoned by the Castro regime. Gross, a State Department subcontractor imprisoned by the Cuban government for smuggling banned telecommunications equipment to the island, confirmed to CNN Nelson's account of what happened during his imprisonment.
"Yes, it does ring a bell. My understanding was that the Cuban government refused to give Senator Nelson a visa," said Gross. "He seems to have come a long way concerning Cuba and I believe he does represent the majority of his constituent's interests regarding Cuba."
Nelson has been critical of former Cuban presidents Fidel and Raul Castro, but his rancor had not been enough to lead to a public rebuke from the Cuban government, at least any CNN could find. Cuban officials have regularly attacked other American politicians critical of the regime, like Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio and New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez among others. Recently they even directed criticism toward Scott, but there is no record of Nelson drawing the ire of the Cuban government during his 40 plus years in public service.
While demographics are shifting in the Sunshine State, winning the support of the resolutely anti-Castro Cuban-American vote has decided the fate of many political campaigns there over the years.
The Cuban government's apparent denial of Nelson is striking since during his years in Cuban jail, Gross received multiple visits from US officials. When he left Cuba as part of a prisoner exchange in 2014, Gross was accompanied home by Sen. Patrick Leahy, Sen. Jeff Flake and Rep. Chris Van Hollen.
CNN could find no record of Nelson ever traveling to Cuba, personally or professionally, but he has attempted to make trips there in the past. In 2001 he had made plans to travel there and even won approval from exiles in Florida to make it happen, but the trip apparently never came to fruition. In 2016 he was asked if he was willing to travel to Cuba as part of a delegation of Senators who were involved in the Obama administration's normalization efforts, but said he wasn't interested in going.
"They invited me to go along, and I cannot go," Nelson told Voice of America. "I don't want any attendance by me as Florida's senior senator that would in any way be interpreted that you overlook the human rights abuses of [the] Castro [regime] in Cuba. It's not time for me to go." He made no mention of being denied a visa in 2014, or that the regime had blacklisted him from entering the country.
The Cuban government in Havana and their embassy in Washington, did not respond to repeated requests for comment by CNN. It is likely that if any American politicians being denied entry into the country, they would not confirm that fact. In the past the government has said that they welcome all American officials to the island to show them the "Cuban reality" and advocate for the lifting of US economic sanctions on the island.
In September, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, traveled to the island and met with Cuban officials including Miguel Diaz-Canel, who replaced Raul Castro as president of Cuba in April.
During the debate, Nelson indicated the ban against him may still be in effect.
Meanwhile, Gross said he did not know the specific reasons behind why Nelson's visa may have been denied. "I actually spoke to his senate office in Washington while I was being held prisoner. I would not want to guess why he was denied a visa, but I sure as heck appreciated his effort to visit me," he said. "I am not a one issue voter, but if I lived in Florida Bill Nelson would have my vote. The alternative would be a disaster."
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