Ah, beautiful Cartagena. A historic fishing village on Colombia's Caribbean Coast, known for its beaches, cobblestone streets, old-town colonial architecture, and a surrounding wall topped with cannon.
More than a dozen U.S. House members and some of their spouses arrived in Cartagena Tuesday for the start of five-day series of seminars and other events on the changes in Latin America sponsored by the Aspen Institute Congressional Program.
The trip took place despite a State Department warning to U.S. citizens about hazards of traveling to Colombia — a warning that was renewed in October and does not exempt Cartagena. But as recently as 2012 the city played host to the sixth Summit of the Americas, which was attended by President Obama and 33 other regional leaders despite a similar travel warning. And, as one Colombian national tourism promotion holds, "The only risk is wanting to stay."
Officials at Aspen, which describes its educational program as a nongovernmental, nonpartisan effort, declined to say which lawmakers were going on the trip and whether Aspen was paying the tab. "It was my understanding Aspen didn't want any press on this," said a spokeswoman for one lawmaker attending.
But because a "primary trip sponsor form" was required to be filed with the House Ethics Committee, the names of lawmakers planning to attend were made available. The list includes: Judiciary Committee Chair Robert Goodlatte; Ways and Means ranking Democrat Sander Levin; Education and the Workforce ranking Democrat George Miller; Progressive Caucus cochair Raul Grijalva; and Reps. Gene Green, Steve Cohen, Lloyd Doggett, Joe Garcia, Jeff Fortenberry, Zoe Lofgren, John Garamendi, Sam Farr, and Gregory Meeks.
Calls and emails to these lawmakers Tuesday confirmed that Lofgren, Meeks, Miller, Grijalva, Levin, Cohen, Garamendi, and Garcia are attending events in Colombia. Other offices did not respond to inquiries.
Grijalva wasn't a bit shy about discussing the trip, which he is taking with his wife. He said the issues on the agenda are intriguing and important, and he expects them to be helpful to his work, particularly a session Saturday on immigration.
"I'm really looking forward to it," he said.
While Aspen officials did not discuss the trip's activities, an agenda shows a lineup of meetings, working lunches, dinners, and other sessions scheduled with experts and officials. Topics include the Latin American economy and security challenges.
A kickoff Wednesday morning includes a welcome from the executive director of Aspen's congressional program, Dan Glickman, a former Agriculture secretary and congressman.
Asked who will be paying for all of this, Aspen spokesman Jim Spiegelman deferred questions to Glickman when he returns from Colombia. But Aspen is paying for at least some lawmakers. "Aspen paying for all of Congressman Garamendi's trip," said Matthew Kravitz, a spokesman for the California Democrat.
Obama's trip to Cartagena in 2012 was marred by two small bomb explosions that preceded his arrival and by a scandal that involved Secret Service agents hiring prostitutes during the trip.
Spiegelman said Tuesday that lawmakers were not traveling with their own security. "When security is necessary, the program hires privately or works directly with the U.S. embassy in that particular country," he said.