Henry Cuellar, Congress, and a Supposed “Azerbaijan Probe”
U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar (D-TX) stops to talk to reporters on his way vote on the House floor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., November 4, 2021. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz
On January 19, the FBI raided the Laredo home of US Representative Henry Cuellar, causing a ripple of press speculation about a federal probe into those with high-powered connections to Azerbaijan. The apparent source that linked the case with Azerbaijan was an unnamed individual quoted by ABC News as being “familiar with the matter.” Cuellar’s link with the country is as a co-chair of the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus (CAC), a group that some media outlets darkly hint might be somehow shady or potentially corrupt. However, the way the US political system works, it is entirely normal for members of Congress to associate themselves with a range of special interest groups representing not just countries but also causes, industries and specific technical programmes. Cuellar himself, who was first elected to the US House of Representatives in 2004, and sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee, is also associated with nearly 60 such caucus groups, including those linked to Peru, Mexico, Colombia, Panama, Japan and Spain.
Documents circulated by the CAC hardly look like radical pro-Baku propaganda. A recent example includes the following suggestion for fellow members of Congress:
We hope that Congress encourages a new era of peaceful cooperation between Armenia and Azerbaijan. A permanent solution to the divisions in the South Caucasus requires exploring how both countries could find areas of common ground to end hostilities. We request that the Committee make funding available for programs promoting cultural and educational exchanges between the Armenian and Azerbaijani people, as well as for cross-border and integration initiatives between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Nonetheless, Armenian news sites were swift to report the unverified suggestions of a federal “Azerbaijan probe” being behind the investigations into Henry Cuellar. The Armenian Council of America (ACA) then used the media attention on Cuellar to call for other members of the house to dissociate themselves from the CAC. This, one might assume, is the latest gambit in the regular jousting match between diaspora groups from the two Caucasian countries.
Meanwhile, the news spread across the Atlantic to the UK, where some newspaper websites reported the same events with a different ‘raid date.’ The Daily Mail, amongst others, included photos of Henry Cuellar with Azerbaijan’s Ambassador Elin Suleymanov, who had been Baku’s man in Washington for a decade before his summer 2021 transfer to London. During a recent podcast recording for The Caspian Post, Mr. Suleymanov referred to the issue. He merrily thanked the popular press for choosing pictures of him dating from 2013, laughing that these were far more flattering than anything more recent. He also reminded listeners that he had probably been the only Washington ambassador to appear on Comedy Central. In terms of the specifics of the FBI issue, he was unable to comment directly as the matter is currently in the hands of law enforcement agents.
However, he was proud to say, “Congressman Cuellar is a great friend, a personal friend. I have a deep respect for him... he’s a man of great integrity.” As for caucus groups, “the US Congress has hundreds if not thousands of them. There’s a Beer Lovers Caucus. A Whiskey Caucus – which by the way is a very good caucus... they kept trying to get me into this, but I told them [that sadly] I’m not a member of Congress. There’s a famous Armenian Caucus which keeps putting [out] all kinds of things against Azerbaijan. Then, of course, there’s the Azerbaijan Caucus. From what I understand... Mr. Cuellar and the other three co-chairs are members of many different caucuses. I am personally grateful to Congressman Cuellar for his contribution to both the US-Azerbaijan Partnership, which was very valuable, and for promoting US interests in our region.” Stressing that this was not Cuellar alone, but as part of a considerable team, Mr. Suleymanov underlined the importance of work done by the CAC in number of areas, including in informing US policies regarding energy security for Europe through the Southern Gas Corridor, which has “turned out to be a visionary approach.”
Like it or loathe it, the caucus system is a reality of the ‘game’ that is US Congressional politics. Each nation state and special interest group quite sensibly understands the situation and uses it as a two-way communication system between corridors of power. In the specific case of Henry Cuellar, all that is known for sure is that he is helping with an FBI investigation: whether that is as a suspect or in assisting the authorities is not yet in the public domain.