A bipartisan group of five state legislators, staff and some family members are traveling to Cuba this week as part of a new interest in strengthening ties between the two countries and preparing for potential trade opportunities.

DFL Reps. Frank Hornstein and Tina Liebling and Sen. Scott Dibble, and Republican Reps. Mark Uglem and Mary Franson, as well as five staff members and some family will depart for Miami and then Havana, where they will stay for a week. They'll pay their own travel expenses, Hornstein said.

Although legislators have traveled to Cuba in the past, this trip comes at a key moment in U.S.-Cuba relations, as President Obama announced last year a return of full diplomatic relations between the two countries after a half century of isolation and recriminations.

"They're our neighbors," Hornstein said.

The trip, organized by the Center for Global Education and Experience at Augsburg College, is not an official trade mission, but Hornstein said he hopes the legislators can begin paving the way for future economic ties, especially in agriculture.

The group will see agriculture projects, health care clinics, schools and disaster preparedness facilities.

They'll meet with government officials but also voices outside the government via nongovernmental organizations and faith communities.

J. Patrick Coolican