July 21, 2017

At key moment, Cuban-American lawmakers adopt Venezuela cause as their own

Venezuela Political Crisis

@patriciamazzei @alextdaugherty 

For months, Cuban-American lawmakers have deployed familiar rhetoric to warn Washington colleagues of a democracy under threat in Latin America, where people are deprived of food and the ballot box, and where economic collapse could empower Russia uncomfortably close to home.

“This is a dysfunctional narco-state that is in a death spiral in terms of its ability to function,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

“We are talking about a nearly failed state in our own hemisphere,” said Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey.

“We will have a swift and firm response from our own administration,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami.

But the tough talk isn’t about Cuba. It’s about Venezuela.

The fight for a free Cuba — a fight carried in their bones, transcending all politics — has fueled Cuban-American lawmakers for decades in their campaign against Fidel and Raúl Castro. But President Donald Trump has already taken a tougher line toward Cuba, as the legislators wanted. So, the unfolding Venezuela crisis has become Cuban Americans’ new crusade.

“Just like it has been too long for the Cuban people, most people are coming to the understanding that this is part of the same movement, the same cancer that has been sickening the Cuban people and the Venezuelan people for decades now,” Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo said in a Capitol Hill speech to Venezuelan activists and lawmakers Wednesday.

Cuban-American Republicans and Democrats agree President Nicolás Maduro must be stopped. Their united front could amplify their clout: As with Cuba, one of their own — Rubio — has proven to be the White House’s go-to legislator on Latin America.

Rubio, a Republican who’s spent years in Congress criticizing Maduro, says he’s been in regular touch with Trump and especially Vice President Mike Pence about how to sanction Venezuela if Maduro moves forward with a planned July 30 election. That vote would create a constituent assembly empowered to rewrite the nation’s constitution, effectively replacing a democratically elected legislature with Maduro loyalists.

“The United States will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles,” Trump said in a statement Monday, released as Rubio made similar remarks on Twitter. “If the Maduro regime imposes its Constituent Assembly on July 30, the United States will take strong and swift economic actions.”

Rubio, Ros-Lehtinen, Curbelo and fellow Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart back banning Venezuelan oil imports, a drastic measure once considered unthinkable against the No. 3 oil supplier to the U.S. But also in favor is a local Democrat, Weston Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who represents thousands of Venezuelans.

The message: On Cuba, Rubio and company faced significant opposition, both on Capitol Hill and in Trump’s administration. On Venezuela, they don’t.

“There’s not a single senator that I’ve seen, and no House member that I’ve heard from, who still supports this regime,” Rubio told the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute in bilingual remarks Wednesday. “Once there were people who sometimes backed [former Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez, or said things about Chávez in the past. But that doesn’t exist anymore. No one here supports Maduro.”

Even Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat who worked with the late Chávez, frequently traveled to Venezuela during Chávez’s presidency and is the only sitting member of Congress who attended Chávez’s funeral, supports sanctions.

“We are compelled to take a stand on what’s right,” Meeks said. “Sanctions that are being considered are the right things to do.”

Behind the bipartisan push is a deeply held belief that Maduro is just another Fidel — and a sense that if Cuban Americans and their allies don’t defend Venezuela in Washington, no one will.

“We need to let the Venezuelan people know that they are not alone in this fight, that we stand together with them, that we will not rest until Venezuela is free from oppression and is once again a nation of democracy and the rule of law,” Ros-Lehtinen said in an impassioned speech Wednesday.

The position is certainly heart-felt, but politics aren’t entirely out of the picture: Venezuelans fleeing Chávez and now Maduro could emerge as a significant voting bloc in Florida, the nation’s largest swing state.

Read more here.

 

July 18, 2017

As Trump writes new Cuba rules, anti-embargo politicians present a compromise

Trumpsign

@alextdaugherty 

Jeff Flake sees an opening in Cuba.

The Republican senator from Arizona, a longtime critic of U.S. trade and travel restrictions on the island, is hopeful that the Trump administration is willing to compromise when it comes to writing out the rules that will comprise Trump’s Cuba policy directive announced in Miami last month.

“This is an area where Marco Rubio and I agree on,” Flake said. “We’ve had broad disagreements with policy on Cuba, but we want to make sure that American travel serves a purpose and that it empowers entrepreneurs. I think what we’ve all recognized no matter where we are on the policy is that over the past couple of years a lot more Cubans have enjoyed a lot more freedom because of American travel.”

Flake was on hand for an announcement on Tuesday by Engage Cuba and the Center of Democracy in the Americas outlining a number of policy recommendations as the White House figures out the nuts and bolts of the Cuba policy announced in June.

Their recommendations include allowing individual people-to-people travel, lifting restrictions on remittances and lifting limitations on bank transactions for Cubans who open U.S. bank accounts.

“Ever since the speech by President Trump we’ve seen a lot of cancellations in our reservations by American travelers. The Americans are scared to come to Cuba,” said Julio Alvarez, co-founder of a restoration garage for classic American automobiles in Havana. “It’s affecting my ability to come to the U.S. to get parts for my cars. I’m not allowed to have a bank account here. This affects my business greatly.”

The entrepreneurs also sent a letter to the departments of State, Treasury and Commerce outlining their recommendations.

“The vast majority of U.S. individual travelers frequent private lodging, restaurants and transportation services,” the letter said. “Fewer travelers will have a direct negative impact on businesses in the hospitality sector as well as an indirect negative impact on connected enterprises.”

Flake was joined by Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, two longtime proponents of ending the Cuban embargo.

“Our government now criticizes that new opening,” Leahy said, after he warmly embraced some of the entrepreneurs on hand and showed them pictures of the view from his home in Vermont. “They say the only Cubans who benefited were Raúl Castro and the Cuban ministry. Well, the Cuban government has benefited, that’s unavoidable in any country where there’s state-owned enterprises. There’s a whole lot of countries like that; China Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia, we have no restrictions on travel there.”

James Williams, head of Engage Cuba, said the recommendations announced Tuesday should appeal to politicians like Rubio who have made it clear their intention is to hurt the sprawling Cuban military apparatus and help private citizens engage in free enterprise.

“Senator Rubio since the announcement has been very active in publicly pushing... that this is not against the private sector,” Williams said. “He’s going out of his way to say how much he’s supporting it so we would hope that there should be common agreement.”

Williams added that their recommendations represent the best chance of a compromise between Cuba hardliners and anti-embargo politicians, as they do not address ending the embargo or allowing tourism on the island.

“If we can’t find agreement on this, I don’t think we can find an agreement on anything,” Williams said. “I’m sort of less optimistic about Congressman [Mario] Diaz-Balart than I am about Senator Rubio.”

Read more here.

July 10, 2017

UM and Cuban studies Institute director part ways

Suchlicki

via @ngameztorres

The Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies is at the center of a controversy between its outgoing director, Jaime Suchlicki, and the University of Miami, which has been its home for almost 20 years.

In a statement issued Friday, UM reported Suchlicki’s departure as director of the center. He will remain in office until Aug. 15.

“The University of Miami thanks Jaime Suchlicki for his extraordinary service to the University and the Miami community,” UM President Julio Frenk said in a statement. “He has dedicated his career to the study of Cuba and has shared his wealth of expertise with generations of students, scholars and members of our community.”

According to Suchlicki, UM also told him that ICCAS would cease to operate at the Casa Bacardi site on the university’s Coral Gables campus.

Suchlicki, who has been at the university for 50 years, said he was not retiring but rather “resigning,” apparently because of differences with Frenk over the future of Cuban studies at the institution.

“I am going to reestablish ICCAS somewhere else, possibly in the Museum of the Cuban Diaspora, and the staff is leaving with me,” he said.
 
Keep reading here.

June 27, 2017

The Trump whisperer: Marco Rubio has the president’s ear on Latin America

Trump Cuba (1)

@alextdaugherty 

Donald Trump has a distaste for the State Department and its legions of diplomats tasked with crafting the nation’s foreign policy.

So when it comes to Latin America, the CEO-turned-president is listening to a man he derided on the campaign trail a year ago: Marco Rubio.

It was Rubio who set up a White House meeting with Lilian Tintori, a human-rights activist married to jailed Venezuelan dissident Leopoldo Lopez. After the meeting, Trump tweeted his support for Lopez, a public rebuke of embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

It was Rubio who helped draft a changed Cuba policy in recent weeks, culminating in Trump’s first presidential visit to Miami to fulfill a campaign promise to the conservative Cubans who helped him win the White House.

And Rubio is well-positioned to take advantage of a vacuum of leadership in the State Department and communicate directly with a president who dislikes diplomacy-as-usual on Latin American foreign policy, according to interviews with former Rubio foreign policy staffers and State Department officials.

“They’ve asked for my input on basically every issue in Latin America and the Western Hemisphere and … we’ve been engaged with them and they’ve been very open,” Rubio said. “In some ways, the fact that they didn’t come in with preconceived ideas of what to do has created the space for that debate to occur.”

There’s plenty of space.

Six months into his administration, Donald Trump has yet to appoint dozens of high-level State Department employees, including the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, the top diplomat in charge of Latin America.

And the president bucked the advice of some of his own senior officials and a slew of congressional Republicans in favor of Rubio to finish the Cuba deal.

Rubio “found a way to say, ‘You don’t want to listen to the experts, listen to me,’ ” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a group that lobbies for closer Cuba ties and is opposed to Trump’s policy changes. “He found a really successful way to tell Trump, don’t listen to your own bureaucracy.”

Not that Trump needs an excuse to eschew the federal bureaucracy, which will be massively downsized if the White House gets its way.

Trump wants to cut the State Department’s budget by 30 percent, repeatedly rails against foreign aid and openly disagreed with his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, during a dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

“It is a genuine problem not to have people that are diplomats, trained people that really are very loyal and dedicated American citizens who want to represent their country,” said former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, a Democrat who served under Bill Clinton. “I’ve just been traveling abroad, and our embassies don’t have enough people.”

Read more here. 

June 20, 2017

Nelson tries to avoid getting pinned down on Trump Cuba shift

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via @learyreports

WASHINGTON - Sen. Bill Nelson was quiet as President Donald Trump unveiled his new policy on Cuba. So we were curious about his views, especially as future rival Rick Scott embraced the change.

What we got Monday evening was a statement that seemed to have it both ways.

"While I support the embargo and agree that American dollars shouldn't go to the Cuban government or military, I also support the people of Cuba,” the Democrat said. “I support families helping families. And I believe allowing more Americans to interact with the people of Cuba is in their best interest, while we continue to pressure the Castro regime for human rights and freedoms."

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

Photo credit: Tampa Bay Times file

June 17, 2017

June 16, 2017

Trump defies congressional Republicans who want closer relations with Cuba

Trump Cuba

@alextdaugherty 

Congressional Republicans from outside South Florida opposed President Donald Trump’s revamped Cuba policy announcement on Friday, as lawmakers from states with agricultural and trade interests on the island fretted about the economic implications of a ban on U.S. business with the Cuban military apparatus.

“Any policy change that diminishes the ability of Americans to travel freely to Cuba is not in the best interests of the United States or the Cuban people,” said Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a proponent of ending the Cuban embargo.

Flake introduced legislation earlier this year that would eliminate travel restrictions to Cuba for American citizens, and he garnered 54 other co-sponsors, including Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, for his bill. Flake implored Senate leadership to put his legislation on the floor for a vote.

“The bill has 55 total cosponsors and I am convinced it would pass the Senate with upwards of 70 votes,” Flake said in a statement.

But President Trump ignored the wishes of the majority of the Senate to fulfill a campaign pledge for conservative Cubans in South Florida: As part of the policy change, travel to Cuba for American citizens will face increased scrutiny.

“We will enforce the ban on tourism, we will enforce the embargo and we will take concrete steps to insure investments flow directly to the people,” Trump said in Miami on Friday.

As the president doled out heaps of praise for Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the two South Florida Republicans who played an integral role in shaping the revamped Cuba policy, other congressional Republicans began to voice their displeasure.

“I have a bill that would allow Americans to travel freely to Cuba, one of my compatriots has a bill that would allow agricultural exports,” said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., a proponent of ending the trade embargo. “These are all Republican measures these are all Republican bills. We tried the same approach for 50 years and it didn’t work.”

Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, who represents a state with a large agricultural sector, said the newly announced changes will hurt U.S. businesses seeking to expand abroad.

“Cuba is a natural market for our nation’s farmers and ranchers, and when we don’t sell to Cuba, another country does,” Moran said.

Read more here. 

June 15, 2017

Ros-Lehtinen backs Trump Cuba policy but won't attend Miami announcement

@PatriciaMazzei

Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen backs President Donald Trump new Cuba policy, but she won't be around for Trump's big announcement Friday.

Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring next year, has been critical of Trump. But the White House invited her to attend Trump's policy event in Miami's Manuel Artime Theater. Ros-Lehtinen, however, said she has family plans that will keep her in Washington.

"I fully support President Trump's announcement on his new Cuba policy and I commend my legislative brothers, Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, for playing an instrumental role in crafting this initiative which curtails cooperation with the Castro regime's military monopoly GAESA," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement to the Miami Herald. "However, I will not be able to travel on Air Force One nor be at the event in Miami due to family commitments in Washington, DC."

Rubio and Diaz-Balart, and Rep. Carlos Curbelo, will join Trump, along with Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Vice President Mike Pence, who was in town Thursday for a conference at Florida International University, might also attend. 

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez is out of town, but the county will have the representation of Chairman Esteban "Steve" Bovo and Commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Jose "Pepe" Diaz, Joe Martinez and Javier Souto

 
 

Inside Rubio and Diaz-Balart's Oval Office push to crack down on Cuba

IMG_rubio_trump-620x412_2_1_KE97VT49_L253676291
@PatriciaMazzei

Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart sat in the Oval Office last month, surrounded by two Cabinet secretaries, the national security adviser and an array of top White House staff, and asked President Donald Trump to put his power behind their plans for Cuba.

The Miami Republican lawmakers had been pressing Trump for months to unwind former President Barack Obama’s policies, bringing up Cuba at every opportunity: Diaz-Balart when he and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen met in private with their former House colleague, Vice President Mike Pence, in February; Rubio when he and his wife joined the president and first lady for an intimate dinner two days later, and again when the senator flew aboard Air Force One to Florida in March.

The administration had been waiting for deputies across Cabinet agencies to review existing Cuba regulations. By the May 3 Oval Office meeting, their recommendation was in: Keep Obama’s push to normalize U.S. relations with the regime of Cuban leader Raúl Castro.

That’s not what Trump wanted. As a candidate, he’d promised change to South Florida’s Cuban-American hardliners, including Bay of Pigs veterans who endorsed him, a gesture that stuck with Trump and that he repeatedly mentioned as president.

“The president said, ‘Look, I want to do this,’” Rubio said.

More here.

Photo credit: Rainier Ehrhardt, Associated Press

Here's Trump's new Cuba policy, taking a harder line than Obama

US NEWS USCUBA-TRUMP 1 MI

@PatriciaMazzei @ngameztorres

In an overhaul of one of his predecessor’s signature legacies, President Donald Trump will redraw U.S. policy toward Cuba on Friday, tightening travel restrictions for Americans that had been loosened under President Barack Obama and banning U.S. business transactions with Cuba’s vast military conglomerate.

Trump’s changes, shared Thursday with the Miami Herald, are intended to sharply curtail cash flow to the Cuban government and pressure its communist leaders to let the island’s fledgling private sector grow. Diplomatic relations reestablished by Obama, including reopened embassies in Washington and Havana, will remain. Travel and money sent by Cuban Americans will be unaffected.

Trump is expected to announce the presidential policy directive Friday, surrounded by Cuban-American supporters at Miami’s Manuel Artime Theater, a venue named after one of the late leaders of the Brigade 2506 Bay of Pigs veterans whose group offered Trump their endorsement last October after he promised exiles a “better deal.” 

In his remarks, Trump plans to cite human-rights violations in Cuba as justification for the new U.S. approach. Dissidents say government repression has increased.

While not a full reversal of Obama’s historic Cuba rapprochement, Trump’s recast U.S. policy hews closer to the hard line espoused by Cuban-American Republicans who derided Obama’s 2014 policy as a capitulation. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was instrumental in drafting Trump’s changes, with help from Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. Other Cuban-American lawmakers started getting briefed on the policy Thursday.

“If we’re going to have more economic engagement with Cuba, it will be with the Cuban people,” Rubio told the Miami Herald.

More here.

Photo credit: Al Diaz, Miami Herald staff