March 23, 2017

Scramble for healthcare votes suddenly puts Cuba policy in play

FAZ22 ForunSeguridad News rk (1)
@PatriciaMazzei @ngameztorres

The showdown in Congress over House Republicans’ healthcare bill might have nothing to do with Raúl Castro — if it weren’t for Miami.

Thursday’s planned vote on the American Health Care Act is so razor tight that House GOP leaders and the White House are leaning hard on every single shaky Republican for their support. One of them: Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, whose foremost want is to overturn the Obama administration’s Cuba opening — and who has recently taken it upon himself to outline a possible Cuba policy for the Trump administration.

Perhaps Diaz-Balart and the White House would engage in a little old-fashioned horse trading — a “Yes” vote on healthcare for swift action on Cuba?

The New York Times reported Wednesday that Diaz-Balart wanted assurances from White House officials that President Donald Trump would keep his campaign promise to take a harder Cuba line. There was no explicit discussion about trading a healthcare vote for a Cuba promise, The Times said after initially reporting otherwise.

“I wish that they would’ve given me a commitment on something, but that is just made up,” Diaz-Balart told McClatchy, the Miami Herald’s parent company, on Wednesday.

He added that he’s still undecided on the healthcare bill, mostly based on concerns about insurance coverage and premium costs for older Americans.

“I am very concerned that particularly that population is not being dealt with yet in a way that is giving me a lot of comfort,” he said.

Politically, he noted, it’s better not to be a hard “Yes” or “No”: “Once I do that, then I’m out of the loop.”

More here.

Photo credit: Roberto Koltun, el Nuevo Herald

March 22, 2017

White House angles for Diaz-Balart's vote on health care

FAZ22 ForunSeguridad News rk
@PatriciaMazzei

In a story Wednesday about the White House leaning on House Republicans to back the GOP healthcare bill, The New York Times reported that Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart used the hot political moment to reiterate that President Donald Trump promised to undo the Obama administration's Cuba policy.

For other House members, the health bill has been an opportunity to deal. As part of the discussions, Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, Republican of Florida, made it clear to White House officials that he wanted assurances that the president would hold to his pledge to consider reversing President Barack Obama’s opening with Cuba, the White House official said. Mr. Diaz-Balart backed the measure in the Budget Committee last week, although the official said there had been no explicit discussion of trading his vote for a promise on Cuba.

(An earlier version of the story incorrectly said Trump had pledged to Diaz-Balart he'd reverse the Obama policy in return for his vote.)

Diaz-Balart has made no secret that he's brought up Cuba every time he's had a chance to speak to top White House personnel. He was particularly friendly during the transition with Vice President Mike Pence. But a source told the Miami Herald on Wednesday that the Trump administration has yet to make any assurances or commitments on Cuba.

Diaz-Balart's spokeswoman, Katrina Valdés, said in an email Wednesday to the Herald and the Tampa Bay Times that, on health care, the congressman "is still reviewing the recent changes to the bill and continues to negotiate with House Leadership about multiple aspects of the bill, including how the legislation handles older, low income constituents."

A vote is planned for Thursday.


--with Alex Leary

Photo credit: Roberto Koltun, el Nuevo Herald

March 21, 2017

Cubans favor better U.S. relations, poll finds

Cuba_Public_Opinion_02656
From the Associated Press:

WASHINGTON -- A rare poll of Cuban public opinion has found that most of the island's citizens approve of normal relations with the United States and large majorities want more tourists to visit and the expansion of private business ownership.

In a poll of 840 people taken in Cuba late last year by the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, 55 percent said that normal relations with the U.S. would be mostly good for the country.

"I'd love for the two peoples to be even closer," Rebecca Tamayo, an 80-year-old retired museum worker, said Monday in Havana. "If there were better relations, more products would be entering the country. There'd be more opportunity to buy things."

Among Cubans aged 18-29, approval of closer relations with the U.S. rose to 70 percent. An overwhelming eight of 10 respondents said they believed tourism to Cuba should be expanded.

President Donald Trump has pledged to reverse former President Barack Obama's 2 1/2-year-old opening with Cuba, which restored full diplomatic relations and allowed a dramatic expansion of U.S. travel to the island. Trump has said little about the matter since taking office, but his administration says it is conducting a full review of Cuba policy with an eye toward possible changes.

More here.

Photo credit: Desmond Boylan, AP file

March 10, 2017

A likely candidate for Florida governor suggested invading Cuba. He says he was just trying to make a point

Cuba Biz Ethics 01 EKM
@PatriciaMazzei

The panel of three local mayors discussing how the United States should approach doing business with Cuba was going predictably Friday until Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a likely Democratic candidate for Florida governor, brought up a word that, once upon a time in Miami, might have caused a political maelstrom: invasion.

“Why aren’t we discussing the invasion of the island?” Levine said.

He wasn’t endorsing the idea of a military incursion. A few moments earlier, Levine had argued that the best way to help Cubans themselves was to engage in open commerce with the island.

But he had no support for the expanded-business position from his colleagues, Coral Gables Mayor Jim Cason and Doral Mayor J.C. Bermudez. Cason, a Republican former head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, had in fact espoused the opposite view, questioning the ethics of any business that would enrich the pockets of the Cuban military.

So Levine made his provocative remark, predicting that a U.S.-led military operation “would probably take 24 hours at best.”

A few people in the crowd chuckled. Neither Bermudez nor Cason took him seriously. Levine later told the Miami Herald he’d been trying to highlight — perhaps inartfully — that opponents of the Obama administration’s Cuba opening, like Cason, couldn’t offer any better solutions.

The surprising exchange reflected how much the conversation on Cuba has changed in Miami. The suggestion that American troops might land on Cuban shores — a failed strategy under former President John F. Kennedy — is now a laugh line. The question of what to do instead, however, remains difficult for local politicians to answer.

More here.

Photo credit: Emily Michot, Miami Herald staff

February 16, 2017

Trump says his Cuba views are 'very similar' to Rubio's

RUBIO Y TRUMP
via @ngameztorres

President Donald Trump said during a press conference Thursday that he shares Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s views on Cuba.

“We had dinner with Senator Rubio and his wife, who was by the way, lovely, and we had a very good discussion about Cuba, because we have very similar views on Cuba,” Trump told journalists.

“Cuba has been very good to me, in the Florida elections, you know, the Cuban people, Americans,” he added in reference to the support of Cuban American voters.

Former rival Rubio and his wife had dinner with Trump and First Lady Melania on Wednesday night, after the president received Lilian Tintori, the wife of the Venezuelan political prisoner Leopoldo López in the White House. A smiling Rubio posed for a photo with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Tintori.

The comment suggests a possible change in Cuba policy since Rubio was one of the staunchest critics of former President Barack Obama’s engagement with Cuba, especially in the area of human rights.

More here.

Photo credit: Rainier Ehrhardt, Associated Press

January 26, 2017

Raúl Castro: I want 'respectful dialogue' with Trump

Dominican Republic CELAC (2)
via @HeraldMimi

Making his first foreign trip since his brother Fidel’s death, Raúl Castro told leaders at the V Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States that Cuba wants to continue its rapprochement with the United States and have a dialogue with the Trump administration.

“I want to express the willingness of Cuba to continue negotiating on pending bilateral matters with the United States on the basis of equality, reciprocity and respect for the sovereignty and independence of our country and to pursue a respectful dialogue and cooperation on topics of common interest with the new government of President Donald Trump,” Castro said during a speech at the CELAC summit being held in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, and attended by 10 heads of state and 33 foreign ministers from the region.

Trump has made various pronouncements on U.S. relations with Cuba, ranging from seeking a better deal in negotiations with Havana to scrapping the Obama administration’s opening unless Cuba makes political concessions, including religious and political freedom for the Cuban people. His nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has said the Trump administration plans to review all former president Barack Obama’s executive orders underlying the rapprochement with Cuba.

“Cuba and the United States can cooperate and live together in a civilized way, respecting our differences and promoting that which benefits both countries and peoples,” Castro said, “but one shouldn’t wait for Cuba to undertake inherent concessions to its sovereignty and independence.”

More here.

Photo credit: Associated Press

Port Everglades calls off Cuba agreement after governor threatens funding cut

Zika Florida (1)
@AmySherman1 @HeraldMimi @PatriciaMazzei

After Gov. Rick Scott threatened to financially cut off Florida ports that do business with Cuba, a Broward County commissioner said Thursday that Port Everglades has canceled plans to sign an agreement with Cuba.

Commissioner Chip LaMarca told the Miami Herald on Thursday morning, minutes after speaking with Port director Steve Cernak, that Cernak told him the memorandum of understanding with Cuba won’t be signed. However, LaMarca said that port officials will still hold their scheduled meeting with the Cuba delegation at the port in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday.

“The port director was a little upset way things transpired, nevertheless he understood the governor’s position,” LaMarca said. “With respect to the MOU it was canceled yesteray afternoon once the governor’s position was made. They are going to still have meeting.”

Port Everglades sent a brief email to the media Thursday morning:

“The National Port Administration of Cuba has indicated to Port Everglades administration that there is no need for a memorandum of understanding at this time. However, today’s business meeting and related activities will continue as planned.”

More here.

Photo credit: Associated Press

January 25, 2017

Florida ports are getting legal Cuban cargo for the first time, and Gov. Rick Scott is unhappy about it

@PatriciaMazzei

Florida Gov. Rick Scott threatened Wednesday to strip state funds from two South Florida seaports ready to sign business deals with the Cuban government.

Over three posts on Twitter, the governor said he would ask state lawmakers to restrict dollars for ports that “enter into any agreement with Cuban dictatorship” — as Port Everglades and the Port of Palm Beach plan to do Thursday and Friday, respectively.

“We cannot condone Raul Castro’s oppressive behavior,” Scott tweeted in English and Spanish, using the preferred social-media platform of his friend, President Donald Trump. “Serious security/human rights concerns.”

Scott’s position came a day after the first legal cargo from Cuba — artisanal charcoal — in more than half a century arrived Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades. The Port of Palm Beach is located in Riviera Beach. 

More here.

This post has been updated.

January 18, 2017

Obama: Wet foot, dry foot 'was a carryover of an old way of thinking'

Obama
@PatriciaMazzei

At his final White House news conference Wednesday, President Barack Obama made his first remarks about ending the special immigration policy for Cubans last week. Here is his answer in full, to a question about why he did away with wet foot/dry foot:

We underwent a monumental shift in our policy towards Cuba. My view was, after 50 years of the policy not working, it made sense for us to try to reopen diplomatic relations to engage the Cuban government, to be honest with them about the strong disagreements we have around political repression and treatment of dissenters and freedom of the press and freedom of religion. But to make progress for the Cuban people, our best shot was to suddenly have the Cuban people interacting with Americans, and seeing the incredibly  success of the Cuban-American community, and engaging in commerce and business and trade, and that it was through that process of opening up these bilateral relations that you would see over time serious and significant improvement.

Given that shift in the relationship, the policy that we had in place, which treated Cuban émigrés completely different from folks from El Salvador or Guatemala or Nicaragua or any other part of the world, one that made a distinction about whether you got here by land or by foot, that was a carryover of an old way of thinking that didn't make sense in this day and age, particularly as we're opening up travel between the two countries. And so we had very lengthy consultations with the Department of Homeland Security, we had some tough negotiations with the Cuban [government], but we arrived at a policy that we think is both fair and appropriate to the changing nature of the relationship between the two countries.

Photo credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

January 16, 2017

Rubio: Cuban immigration policy 'was going to be changed one way or another'

@PatriciaMazzei

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio confirmed Monday that he won't try to bring back the special immigration status for Cubans that President Barack Obama eliminated last week in a surprise move.

"Wet foot/dry foot -- and the Cuban Adjustment Act in general -- was in danger," Rubio told reporters in Miami. Obama's reestablishing of diplomatic relations with Cuba undermined "the very essence and the purpose of the law, its justification."

"There's been well-documented abuses of the program," added the Florida Republican, who had filed legislation to tighten federal benefits for recent Cuban arrivals. "In my view, the Cuban Adjustment Act was going to be changed one way or another."

He even predicted there would be enough votes in Congress to repeal the law altogether.

The Cuban Adjustment Act still stands, but Obama's actions Thursday effectively gutted it, making it much more difficult for Cubans to remain legally in the U.S. and qualify under the act's protections.

While he won't ask President-elect Donald Trump to bring back the wet-foot/dry-foot policy, Rubio reiterated he'll push to reinstate the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program that gave refuse to Cuban medical professionals forced to work abroad who defected to the U.S. In a statement Thursday, Rubio said he spoke to Vice President-elect Mike Pence about the issue.

Now that Cubans who arrive undocumented in the U.S. must request political asylum to try to remain in the country, Rubio said he hoped their asylum claims would be given a full hearing.

"I don't want to see stories about people who came that way," with legitimate claims of oppression, he added, "and were sent back to Cuba."