November 08, 2017

Rubio: ‘Bureaucrats’ softened Trump Cuba policy

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@PatriciaMazzei

The night before the White House planned to announce new regulations restricting U.S. business and travel in Cuba, the biggest champions of President Donald Trump’s tighter policy — Miami’s Republican lawmakers in Congress — were in the dark.

Federal agencies writing the rules had gotten input from some of the legislators and their aides over the past five months, ever since Trump unveiled his new Cuba approach to much fanfare in East Little Havana. But Trump’s administration, wary of past leaks, kept close hold of the final product. News reporters knew a Wednesday morning announcement on the regulations was imminent before the members of Congress had even been briefed.

Once informed, the Miami politicians were dissatisfied.

Instead of offering unconditional applause, as they did when Trump signed his policy directive, Sen. Marco Rubio and Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen gave lukewarm statements lamenting that “bureaucrats” resisted giving muscular backing to the president.

“The regulatory changes announced today by Treasury and Commerce begin to implement President Trump’s June 2017 policy for enforcing U.S. sanctions laws against the Castro regime,” Rubio said in a statement. “Unfortunately, however, bureaucrats in the State Department who oppose the President’s Cuba policy refused to fully implement it when they omitted from the Cuba Restricted List several entities and sub-entities that are controlled by or act on behalf of the Cuban military, intelligence or security services.” 

Rubio weighed in nearly five hours after the regulations were published — a clear indication of displeasure from a senator known for his quick, detailed reactions to matters of Latin America policy he cares deeply about. He used his statement to criticize the State Department for failing to include two major tourism brands from the U.S. list of 180 Cuban entities banned from doing business with Americans.

More here.

Photo credit: Al Diaz, Miami Herald staff

Here's what Trump's Cuba crackdown will look like

Cuba Trump
@PatriciaMazzei @ngameztorres @HeraldMimi

The days of Americans legally staying at Ernest Hemingway’s Old Havana haunt, the Hotel Ambos Mundos, or making purchases at Havana’s only luxury shopping arcade, will be over under new regulations the Trump administration issued Wednesday as part of a crackdown on U.S. business and travel to Cuba.

Americans will be banned from doing business with 180 entities tied to the Cuban military, including hotels, stores, marinas, tourist agencies, industries and even two rum rum makers owned bythe government. U.S. companies will be barred from investing in a sprawling economic development zone in Mariel that Cuba envisions as crucial to its commercial future.

The long-awaited rules will take effect Thursday. The regulations, intended to cut off cash to Cuban leader Raúl Castro’s government and tighten U.S. travel to the communist island, stem from a directive President Donald Trump signed in Miami in June that outlined his new policy. Trump has distanced himself from former President Barack Obama’s opening to Cuba, criticizing him for getting a “one-sided” deal.

The Treasury, Commerce and State departments, together with the National Security Council, worked for months on the regulations, which took longer than some members of Congress and U.S.-Cuba policy experts expected. Sanctions against other countries, most notably North Korea, took priority for the administration, which continues to be understaffed in State and other agencies.

The White House also had to deal with the ongoing mystery over a sonic attack against U.S. diplomats in Havana. While Washington has not accused the Cuban government of causing the attacks, it holds Havana responsible for not protecting Americans diplomats while on Cuban soil and has reduced its embassy staff by 60 percent.

The delay in issuing the regulations allowed U.S. companies like Caterpillar, the heavy-equipment giant, to finalize business deals with Cuba that will be unaffected by the new restrictions. The Caterpillar agreement, which allows the company’s Puerto Rican distributor to set up a warehouse and distribution operation at the Mariel Special Economic Development Zone, was announced just last week.

More here.

Photo credit: Ramon Espinosa, Associated Press

November 01, 2017

Under Trump, U.S. again votes against UN resolution condemning Cuba embargo

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via @HeraldMimi

Saying that Cuba has used the U.S. embargo against the island as a “shiny object to distract the world” from its own failures, the United States bucked the sentiment in the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday and voted against a resolution condemning the embargo.

The General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn the embargo, but reflecting the Trump administration’s new harder line on Cuba, the United States voted once again to reject the nonbinding resolution. It was its 25th no vote on the resolution, which has come up every year since 1991.

The final vote was 191 in favor with two no votes by the United States and Israel, which traditionally votes with the U.S.

The renewed hostility between Cuba and the United States was on full display as Nikki Haley, the U.S. representative to the United Nations, called the long-standing debate on the embargo “political theater,” and said Cuba “is sending the warped message to the world that the sad state of its economy, the oppression of its people, and the export of its destructive ideology are not its fault.”

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez used more than half of his speech to take umbrage at what he called Haley’s “offensive, interfering statements,” condemn the Trump administration’s Cuba policy, and correct what he said were historical errors in Haley’s remarks.

“The United States, where flagrant violations of human rights are committed, hasn’t the slightest moral authority to criticize Cuba,” he said.

More here.

Photo credit: Cia Pak, UN photo

October 27, 2017

Cuba quietly reveals names of sonic attack victims — but some are wrong, U.S. says

Cuba Attacks Medical Mystery (1)
@PatriciaMazzei @ngameztorres @dchangmiami

For half an hour on prime time Thursday night, the Cuban government took to state-owned television to defend itself against U.S. accusations that American diplomats suffered from a mysterious sonic attack.

In doing so, Cuba also appears to have engaged in a bit of sly retaliation: Briefly, the government published the names on screen of nine purported American attack victims, whose names the U.S. has kept secret.

A one-page memo from Cuba’s powerful Ministry of the Interior dated April 4 asked a Havana health clinic that treats foreign patients to provide summarized medical histories for American citizens who might have reported auditory or neurological symptoms from “sound levels that could affect their health.” The request to Clínica Internacional Cira García also listed the names of the nine potential victims.

The State Department said Friday it could not vouch for the document’s veracity or confirm that any of the names even belong to U.S. government personnel — though other government records available online show at least some of them are diplomats, and some of them are posted to the U.S. embassy in Havana.

But a U.S. official with knowledge of the situation engaged in a bit of sly retaliation of their own: Not all of the people named were attack victims, the official said, without venturing an explanation as to why they would be included in the list at all. 

“Who knows why the Cubans do what they do?” the official said.

More here.

Photo credit: Desmond Boylan, Associated Press

October 20, 2017

State Department identifies two more victims of mysterious sonic attacks in Havana

US NEWS USCUBA-DIPLOMATS-COLDWAR ABA
@PatriciaMazzei @ngameztorres

The U.S. State Department added two more victims to the list of diplomats who have suffered mysterious attacks in Havana.

The number of Americans affected is now 24.

“Based on continued assessments of U.S. government personnel, we can confirm 24 persons have experienced health effects from the attacks,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. “As we have said previously, an investigation into the attacks in Cuba is ongoing, and we revise our assessments as we receive new information.”

According to Nauert, the assessments are based on medical evaluations of personnel who were affected by incidents earlier this year, not by new attacks.

The most recent medically confirmed attack occurred in late August, she said. The spokeswoman said the government cannot rule out that new cases may emerge “as medical professionals continue to evaluate members of the embassy community.” 

The State Department has warned Americans not to travel to Cuba because of the alleged attacks on its personnel in Havana. The victims have reported a variety of symptoms ranging from hearing loss and headaches to brain damage. In particular, the agency warned Americans of staying away from Hotel Capri and Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana, where some of the attacks took place.

More here.

Photo credit: Olivier Douliery, TNS File

Rubio to Trump: Have U.S. vote 'no' on UN Cuba embargo resolution

Trump Cuba (1)
@PatriciaMazzei

Sen. Marco Rubio wants the Trump administration to once again oppose the annual symbolic vote at the United Nations to condemn the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

The UN will probably hold the vote next month, the Florida Republican wrote in a letter Thursday to President Donald Trump, and the U.S. should say "No." Taking any other posture, Rubio argued, "would send the wrong message to human rights defenders and pro-democracy dissidents in Cuba."

Last year, under the Obama administration, the U.S. abstained from the vote for the first time, a historic shift underscoring the former president's diplomatic rapprochement with Raúl Castro's communist regime. It was the 25th time the UN formally rebuked the embargo -- the "blockade," Cuba calls it -- with a 191-2 vote. The U.S. and Israel abstained.

In June, Trump tightened U.S.-Cuba policy, in large part because Rubio -- Trump's go-to man on Latin America -- and Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart pressed the White House. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley is a like-minded Rubio friend.

"It is my hope that America's new policy toward Cuba will help to bring closer the day when the Cuban people have the opportunity to elect their own leaders and live under a government that truly represents them and respects their God-given, inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," Rubio wrote.

Download Rubio letter

Photo credit: Lynne Sladky, Associated Press

October 03, 2017

U.S. to expel two-thirds of Cuban diplomats amid sonic attack probe

CUBA-EXPEL

via @francoordonez

The Trump administration will kick nearly two-thirds of Cuba’s embassy personnel out of the United States after months of mysterious attacks targeting American diplomats drove the White House to pull its own staff from Havana, according to multiple sources familiar with the plan.

According to three of the U.S. sources briefed on the plan, the State Department will announce the expulsion of Cuban diplomatic personnel as soon as Tuesday. A fourth described the expulsion as “reciprocity” for the American withdrawal from Havana.

A series of mysterious “sonic” attacks began months ago and has affected as many as 25 U.S. personnel. According to one source, U.S. intelligence operatives were the first known American personnel affected. The most recent incidents were reported within the last few weeks.

The United States still does not know the nature of the device or weapon being employed against its staff.

The State Department has not accused Cuba of being behind the incidents. But it has repeatedly warned that Havana is responsible for the safety of foreign diplomats on its soil under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations.
 
“Cuba is not upholding its commitments of the Vienna convention, of protecting diplomats,” said a U.S. source, familiar with the State Department plans.

The State Department’s plan follows days of pressure from some U.S. lawmakers to expel Cuban diplomatic personnel after the White House pulled Americans out of Havana and issued a travel warning.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who has emerged as a key advisor to President Donald Trump on all Latin America issues, tweeted last week that the United States “should expel a Cuban diplomat for every U.S. diplomat evacuated due to acoustic attacks.”

“I spoke on Friday to the State Department and I told them that I am strongly advocating that the U.S. kick those 'diplomats,' who are nothing more than spies, out of the U.S.,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican. “State told me that it was reviewing this action, so I’m pleased as punch to hear that it may happen soon.”


Read more here.

September 29, 2017

U.S. to withdraw most personnel from embassy in Cuba

US Cuba
@ngameztorres

The United States will withdraw most of its staff from its embassy in Havana following mysterious sonic attacks that have caused several health problems to about 20 diplomats, a U.S. government source confirmed to El Nuevo Herald on Friday.

The U.S. government has ordered 60 percent of its staff removed from the diplomatic headquarters in Havana. Additionally, it will issue an alert recommending to the Americans not to travel to the island due to the attacks. The issuance of visas in Havana was also suspended indefinitely.

The measures, first reported by the Associated Press, seek to protect diplomats and their families from what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called a “attacks on the health” of diplomatic staff in Havana.

The diversity of symptoms, from hearing loss to brain damage, as well as the diversity of descriptions of the sounds the diplomats say they have heard, have left experts confused.

According to a State Department source, there are 21 confirmed cases of affected persons, not 25 as originally reported. The source also stressed that the attacks did not occur at the U.S. embassy. Previously, U.S. government officials believed the attacks occurred at diplomats’ homes — all leased from Cuban government — and in the Hotel Capri in Havana.

More here.

Photo credit: Desmond Boylan, Associated Press

September 28, 2017

Lawmakers urge Trump to let U.S. companies assist in Cuba's hurricane recovery (updated)

Cuba Hurricane Irma

@alextdaugherty 

A group of lawmakers who want more trade with Cuba are urging President Donald Trump to suspend an Obama-era restriction on what types of relief and reconstruction supplies can be sent to the island from the United States after Hurricane Irma made landfall on Cuba's north coast as a Category Five storm. 

On Thursday, 65 lawmakers, including 60 Democrats and five Republicans, signed a letter to Trump asking him to let U.S. businesses send construction supplies to Cuba without approval from the Treasury and Commerce Departments. 

"Historical grievances should be put aside during a humanitarian crisis like this, the people of Cuba need urgent support to rebuild," the letter said. "Fortunately, there is a simple change you can make that would provide necessary support to the Cuban people while at the same time helping U.S. businesses: remove restrictions on the ability of U.S. companies to export needed relief and reconstruction supplies to the Cuban government and its people." 

The plan only applies to private U.S. companies that want to provide construction materials and other forms of relief to the Cuban government and citizens. It does not ask the U.S. government to provide taxpayer funds for Cuba's recovery from Irma. 

Current regulations allow pre-approved sales of construction materials to private entities in Cuba serving privately-owned buildings. Public structures in Cuba, including schools and hospitals, are not eligible for U.S. materials to rebuild after a storm. 

"At the end of the day America is a very big economy, we’re capable of selling building supply products to Cuba and working on aid packages in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico at the same time," said James Williams, head of Engage Cuba, a group that lobbies for closer Cuba ties. "It would be different if we were saying pull money out of one pocket and put it into another." 

The Cuban government hasn't reached out to U.S. officials asking for relief after Hurricane Irma. Southcom Commander Adm. Kurt Tidd said in a briefing last week at that Cuban officials did not ask U.S. military personnel in Guantanamo Bay for help after the storm. 

“The Cubans do not ask for assistance there typically," Kenneth Merten, deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs at the State Department, said last week. "I’m hard pressed to remember if the Cubans have ever asked us for assistance after a hurricane or some kind of natural disaster." 

The letter was led by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., one of the more liberal members of Congress. But conservatives who want to end the embargo like Reps. Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Ted Poe of Texas also signed the letter. 

"At this difficult time for the Cuban people, denying them the ability to purchase high-quality, American-made construction, medical and other crucial supplies is cruel and counterproductive," the letter said. "This change would not be controversial." 

Hurricane Irma killed at least 10 people in Cuba and caused billions in damage along the island's north coast.

Update 7:41pm Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the longest-serving Cuban-American in Congress, sharply criticized the letter in a statement to the Miami Herald.

"In the aftermath of previous hurricanes that have ripped through Cuba, the Castro regime has responded to the suffering of the people in a feckless and callous manner, as demonstrated by its refusal to accept assistance that comes from the U.S.," Ros-Lehtinen said. "Because they are blinded by ideology, some Members foolishly believe that US regulations are responsible for the destruction of Cuba's infrastructure and are hampering the island's recovery. The regime cares little about the citizens before, during and after hurricanes but it does care deeply about spreading its lies about our warm and generous nation."

Update 11:20pm Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican who helped draft Trump's tougher Cuba policy earlier this year, is also against the proposal. 

"When the United States generously offered humanitarian aid in the wake of hurricanes Ike and Gustav, the Castro regime flatly rejected that offer," Diaz-Balart said in a statement. "Instead, it cynically attempted to leverage the devastation to demand financing that would bolster its coffers. I wholeheartedly support humanitarian and pro-democracy assistance to the Cuban people.   But as the regime has demonstrated for more than half a century, business deals with the regime only benefit the regime."

August 11, 2017

Anti-Castro politicians talk tough on Cuba after suspected attack on U.S. diplomats

Cuba embassy

@alextdaugherty 

As the Trump administration prepares to write new regulations regarding travel to Cuba, Havana and Washington are involved in a diplomatic tug of war that seems straight out of the 1960s.

American diplomats in Cuba left the country after experiencing severe hearing loss attributed to a sonic device, according to U.S. officials. In response, the U.S. government expelled two Cuban diplomats from Washington.

The Raúl Castro government vehemently denied any involvement, and there’s chatter the Russians could have been behind it.

“In terms of the timing ... if this was an intentional thing by the Cuban government, the timing couldn’t be worse or stranger,” said Collin Laverty, president of a company that arranges group trips to Cuba and is in favor of improved relations with Havana. “Relations were good when Obama was in office. This just seems completely out of context.”

Anti-Castro elements of the U.S. government, including Republicans from Miami, are capitalizing on the latest news as a sign that Havana cannot be trusted, even though it isn’t clear yet that the Cuban government tried to harm U.S. diplomats.

 

“The Cuban government has been harassing U.S. personnel working in Havana for decades,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said in a statement. “This has not stopped with President Obama’s appeasement.”

“It shouldn’t come as a surprise the Castro regime can’t guarantee the safety of our diplomats,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, said. “The escalation described in these reports is unacceptable and clearly indicates that the previous administration’s policy of unilateral concessions failed to advance U.S. interests.”

“The Castro regime has a long and documented history of acting in a manner adverse to U.S. national interests,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, said. “The expulsion of two Castro regime officials sends a clear message that this sort of behavior will not be tolerated.”

Rubio played a big role in the Trump administration’s decision earlier this summer to limit some types of travel to Cuba, and the president was eager to please conservative Cubans in Miami who helped him win the 2016 election.

But there are still a lot of unanswered questions regarding the incident, and the State Department declined to go into detail about what happened to the diplomats.

“We first heard about these incidents back in late 2016,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert. “When we talk about medical issues, about Americans, we don’t get into it. We take those incidents very seriously, and there is an investigation currently under way.”

A White House official said the State Department and White House are “monitoring” the situation in Cuba.

On Wednesday, an unnamed U.S. official told The Associated Press that investigators were looking into the possibility that Russia or another third party could have carried out the attack without the Cuban government’s knowledge.

But Otto Reich, a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under President George W. Bush, said it’s highly unlikely that the Cuban government would not be aware of a sonic device installed at the house of a diplomat.

Read more here.