January 15, 2017

Miami affiliate debuts Havana-based news crew, a first for local U.S. stations

Hatzel_First Flight

via @HeraldMimi

WPLG Local 10 News reporter Hatzel Vela and photojournalist Brian Ely have become the ABC affiliate’s men in Havana.

The pair arrived last Wednesday to become the South Florida station’s full-time Havana-based crew. That gives WPLG the distinction of being the first local station in the United States to have a news crew in Cuba on a full-time basis.

Local 10 News Havana officially debuts Monday, but when news broke last Thursday that the United States was ending its policy of allowing the entry of Cuban migrants who arrive without visas, the pair had their first big story since the Cuban government granted them approval to set up shop on the island.

WPLG, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, doesn’t call its new office a bureau, but rather refers to the arrangement as having a Havana-based news team that lives and works in Cuba.

“Our goal is for this to last and be there for the long haul,” said Bill Pohovey, the station’s vice president of news. “At this point it is not a permanent thing; it is a trial run. We have to see how this works for us.”

More here.

January 12, 2017

What Trump said as a candidate about wet foot, dry foot

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@PatriciaMazzei
 
At least twice as a candidate, President-elect Donald Trump was asked about the wet foot, dry foot immigration policy toward Cubans that President Barack Obama ended Thursday.
 
Trump has yet to weigh in on the Obama repeal, though the White House told Cuban Americans on a call Thursday evening the Trump transition team had been briefed about the decision, according to a person on the call.
 
In February of last year, the Tampa Bay Times asked Trump if it was fair for Cubans who arrive in the U.S. to automatically get legal status, a path to citizenship and federal welfare benefits.
 
"I don’t think that’s fair. I mean why would that be a fair thing?" Trump responded. "I don’t think it would be fair. You know we have a system now for bringing people into the country, and what we should be doing is we should be bringing people who are terrific people who have terrific records of achievement, accomplishment.... You have people that have been in the system for years [waiting to immigrate to America], and it’s very unfair when people who just walk across the border, and you have other people that do it legally."
 
Pressed again in August, Trump deflected a question from the Miami Herald specifically about whether he would end wet foot, dry foot. (Video below.)
 
"Well, interestingly, I'm having a meeting on that in about a week with a lot of people from Cuba, originally from Cuba, and Cuban Americans," he said. "And I'm going to be talking about that. I'm going to have a decision probably pretty quickly on that. But I want to get their feeling. I want to listen to what the people are saying. And I want to listen specifically to what Cuban people who came to this country, and who have lived in this country, Cuban Americans. I want to hear how they feel."
 
Trump's meeting with Cuban Americans in Miami didn't take place until more than a month later -- and no policy specifics were discussed.
Photo credit: Al Diaz, Miami Herald staff

The last Cubans to cross one U.S. border checkpoint under wet foot, dry foot

Lastcubans
via @FrancoOrdonez

The U.S. border patrol agent checked the 32-year-old Cuban electrical engineer’s and his 7-year-old son’s documents one last time. Then he welcomed them into the country.

But before Yuniesky Marcos Roque walked away, the agent told him he was the last Cuban who would be allowed through the border station.

“He told me that my son and I were the last Cubans to be let in,” said Marcos, pulling his son, Kevin, toward him. “I’m very emotional right now. I came here for him. So he could have a better future. I’m relieved that we made it, but sad for the others waiting on the bridge.”

President Barack Obama announced Thursday afternoon that he was ending the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allowed Cubans to remain in the United States simply by touching American soil. The decision was effective immediately.

The decision was felt especially hard in this city on the border with Mexico, where dozens of Cubans have been arriving daily, racing to enter the United States worried that this exact moment would arrive. Cubans who’d made it to a safe house in this city Thursday morning said they believed dozens were in line to enter when the policy ended.

More here.

'Have you no shame, President Obama?' Florida politicians react to wet foot, dry foot repeal

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@PatriciaMazzei

President Barack Obama undid 20 years of U.S. immigration policy toward Cuba on Thursday, repealing the "wet foot, dry foot" position that allowed Cubans who reached U.S. soil to remain in the country without fear of deportation.

Reaction from Florida politicians, including Cuban-American hardline members of Congress, was swift.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida:

The ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy was put in place many years ago to help those who were fleeing Castro’s repressive regime. I believe changing this outdated policy in order to be fair to all and also to prevent people from abusing the system is the right thing to do.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida:

While I have acknowledged the need to reform the Cuban Adjustment Act for some time now, the Obama Administration’s characterization of this change as part of the ongoing normalization with the Castro regime is absurd. It is in fact President Obama's failed Cuba policy, combined with the Castro regime’s increased repression, that has led to a rise in Cuban migration since 2014.

 

The Cuban Adjustment Act has provided countless Cubans the opportunity to escape the Castro tyranny. However, in recent years it has also led to growing abuses. While some changes were needed, we must work to ensure that Cubans who arrive here to escape political persecution are not summarily returned to the regime, and they are given a fair opportunity to apply for and receive political asylum.

 

Furthermore, I am concerned by the decision to terminate the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program. For decades, the Castro regime has forced thousands of doctors to go abroad as a tool of its foreign policy. This is political repression, and I am optimistic that the incoming Trump Administration will reverse this part of the executive order and allow these doctors to seek asylum at U.S. embassies or consulates in other countries.

 

I had the opportunity to discuss this issue with Vice President-elect Pence this evening, and I am heartened by the fact that in a week we will have a new administration committed to discarding the failed Cuba policy of the last two years.”

 U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami:

President Obama's policy legitimizing the Castro dictatorship created a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty in Cuba and resulted in a mass exodus from the island. Since the President announced his deal with Castro at the end of 2014, almost 100,000 Cubans have reached our shores. Many others fled the island but never arrived, instead dying at sea or in the jungles of Central America.

For two years, I have demanded a solution to this crisis from the Administration. Instead, the Administration chose to wait until the last hour to act, and as usual collaborated directly with the Cuban dictatorship instead of consulting members of Congress. America’s policy toward Cuba should serve to advance U.S. interests, and it should never be coordinated with anti-American dictators.

Although our country's immigration policy toward Cuba has granted many of the dictatorship's victims refuge, it has also been grossly abused and exploited by many Cuban nationals, while also inadvertently bolstering the Cuban regime. A change to this policy was inevitable. I remain firmly committed to supporting the victims of persecution in Cuba while ending all abuses of America’s generosity.

With regards to the cancellation of the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which offered refuge to Cuban doctors who are in effect slaves of the regime assigned to countries around world, it is regrettable and a clear example of the Cuban regimes influence over the Obama Administration. I hope the incoming Administration will consider reinstating this program.

U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami (in a statement titled, "Have You No Shame, President Obama?"):

With just eight days left in his administration, President Obama has found one more way to frustrate the democratic aspirations of the Cuban people and provide yet another shameful concession to the Castro regime.  Under President Obama's misguided view, after having removed the Castro regime from the state sponsor of terror list and granting diplomatic recognition, the next logical step is denying oppressed Cubans the presumption of political asylum. 

Since 1966, the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act has provided a lifeline to generations of Cubans fleeing oppression.  Many made the treacherous journey to begin their lives anew in freedom, and others perished trying to escape.  In addition, the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program provided a way for doctors forced to work under inhumane conditions for paltry salaries in foreign lands to escape their servitude.

President Obama's policy toward the Castro regime has not improved human rights or increased liberty on the island.  To the contrary, documented political arrests reached close to 10,000 in 2016 as renowned activists such as Berta Soler, Danilo Maldonado Machado "El Sexto," and labor activists including Ivan Carrillo Hernandez suffered brutal arrests just in the past few weeks.  El Sexto remains in prison today and his American lawyer, Kim Motley, was harassed and interrogated while in Cuba simply for representing him.  Cubans are leaving the island in record numbers, and many of the 53 who were released as part of the Obama-Castro deal were subsequently rearrested.

President Obama's numerous concessions and extension of diplomatic recognition to the murderous Castro regime does not constitute an achievement.  To the contrary, his policy has been a succession of betrayals of America's longstanding commitment to human rights and freedom, and a betrayal of the Cuban people who have suffered under oppression for far too long.  This last act of diminishing lifelines to Cubans languishing in totalitarianism is one final despicable betrayal of a people who deserve better from an American president.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami:

Castro uses refugees as pawns to get more concessions from Washington so there is no reason to do away with the Cuban medical doctor program, which is a foolhardy concession to a regime that sends its doctors to foreign nations in a modern-day indentured servitude. The repeal of the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program was done because that's what the Cuban dictatorship wanted and the White House caved to what Castro wants, instead of standing up for U.S. democratic values and seeking the return of fugitives from U.S. justice like Joanne Chesimard or seeking compensation for U.S. citizens for their confiscated properties. In another bad deal by the Obama administration, it has traded wet foot/dry foot for the elimination of an important program which was undermining the Castro regime by providing an outlet for Cuban doctors to seek freedom from forced labor which only benefits an oppressive regime.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa:

The end of the “wet foot/dry foot” policy should be followed by congressional action to lift the outdated economic embargo and improve economic conditions for everyday Cubans.  This is an important step in normalizing our relationship and America must do everything to lift small business entrepreneurs and create opportunities on both sides of the Florida Straits.  We must continue to leave the Cold War policies behind and build new bridges for jobs and economic opportunities for both nations.

I have witnessed how the “wet foot, dry foot” policy created an uneven playing field for immigrants from other Caribbean nations who are also seeking the opportunity to pursue the American dream.    I have also seen Cubans who try to come here for short term visits to see family members negatively affected by “wet foot/dry foot.”  The change in policy today will help ensure that we can have safer and more orderly migration with all of our Caribbean neighbors.

--with Alex Leary

Photo credit: Associated Press

Obama repeals wet foot, dry foot immigration policy for Cubans

Balseros
via @HeraldMimi

The Obama administration said Thursday it is ending the controversial “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy — essentially turning the clock on decades of preferential treatment for Cuban refugees — and making those who arrive without visas subject to deportation.

The so-called “wet-foot” part of the policy was implemented following the 1994 rafter crisis that brought some 35,000 Cubans to U.S. shores.

The change, which took effect immediately, brought to a halt the practice that gave Cubans who arrive at U.S. borders without visas automatic entry to the United States — even if they had been smuggled in by human traffickers.

“Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the United States illegally and do not qualify for humanitarian relief will be subject to removal, consistent with U.S. law and enforcement priorities,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. “The Cuban government has agreed to accept the return of Cuban nationals who have been ordered removed, just as it has been accepting the return of migrants interdicted at sea.”

After outlining the policy, the White House held a call with Cuban Americans who support of the administration. They were told President-elect Donald Trump's transition team was briefed, one person on the call told the Miami Herald.

Immigration analysts say a change in U.S. immigration policy toward Cuba had to be immediate to prevent a wave of Cubans trying to reach U.S. shores by raft or boat or by crossing at the U.S. border with Mexico to beat a deadline.

More here.

January 11, 2017

Tillerson: U.S. has not held Cuba 'accountable' in reengagement

@PatriciaMazzei

President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of state, Exxon Mobil Chief Executive Rex Tillerson, told the U.S. Senate in the opening to his confirmation hearing Wednesday that Cuba has not done enough to protect human rights since reestablishing diplomatic relations with the U.S.

"We we must adhere to standards of accountability," Tillerson said. "Our recent engagement with the government of Cuba was not accompanied by any significant concessions on human rights. We have not held them accountable for their conduct. Their leaders received much, while their people received little. That serves neither the interest of Cubans or Americans.

"Abraham Lincoln declared that America is 'the last best hope of Earth,'" he continued. "Our moral light must not go out if we are to remain an agent of freedom for mankind. Supporting human rights in our foreign policy is a key component of clarifying to a watching world what America stands for."

The hearing continues Wednesday, and will include questioning from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

January 05, 2017

Ros-Lehtinen forwards Cuba letter from ex-diplomats to Trump

@PatriciaMazzei

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen intends to be the emissary between President-elect Donald Trump and a group of former U.S. diplomats who want the incoming White House to reverse President Barack Obama's Cuba policy.

Ros-Lehtinen told the Miami Herald on Thursday that she forwarded to Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence a letter from the Center for a Free Cuba. The letter, reported by the Herald on Wednesday, urges Trump to review all of Obama's Cuba actions, and undo some of them immediately.

"In the last year, you have mentioned that your administration would reverse some of the damage inflicted by the current misguided Cuba policy and these outstanding American diplomats can assist to hep achieve a better deal for our own national security interests and to help the people of Cuba achieve freedom, justice, and democracy," Ros-Lehtinen wrote in a cover letter to Trump.

In a statement to the Herald, Ros-Lehtinen praised the letter for laying out "some concrete actions that can be done int he first 100 days of the incoming administration."

Read Ros-Lehtinen's letter to Trump.

January 04, 2017

Ex-diplomats ask Trump to undo Obama Cuba policy

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@PatriciaMazzei @ngameztorres

Five former U.S. diplomats with extensive experience in Latin America sent President-elect Donald Trump a letter this week urging him to rescind the executive actions signed by President Barack Obama relaxing sanctions against Cuba and to stop cooperating with Cuban state security.

In the letter, the diplomats — including Coral Gables Mayor Jim Cason, who once headed the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana — ask Trump, in his first 100 days in office, to undo Obama’s “ill-conceived and unlawful executive orders lifting restrictions on doing business with the Castro regime.”

Furthermore, they write, Trump should withdraw, “as soon as possible after being sworn in,” Obama’s order to share intelligence with Cuban officials — a directive criticized by Republican members of Congress and which Cason called “ludicrous” in a Tuesday interview with the Miami Herald.

“We want him to take a fresh look” at Cuba policy, Cason said of Trump. “We gave away too much. Go back, rethink it — not break the entire relations, but certainly don’t give anything [more].”

Trump has pledged to “terminate” the U.S.-Cuba thaw pursued for two years by Obama unless Raúl Castro’s government makes unspecified concessions. Advocates of more Obama-style engagement have said they’re concerned about how Trump might handle Cuba, especially if he feels beholden to exiles who helped win him Florida.

More here.

Photo credit: Al Diaz, Miami Herald staff

December 21, 2016

Florida Gov. Rick Scott writes to Raúl Castro: 'Allow a new era of freedom and opportunity'

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@ByKristenMClark

Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott sent a letter to Cuban President Raúl Castro on Tuesday, calling for him to change course and “allow a new era of freedom and opportunity for Cuba.”

Scott referenced the celebrations in Miami after the death of Fidel Castro last month, saying the demonstrations “represented the hope for an end to the decades of torture, repression, incarceration and death that you and your brother have caused the people of Cuba.”

But, Scott noted, Raúl Castro appears to be continuing his brother’s legacy — with recent examples that include the arrest of Cuban artist Danilo “El Sexto” Maldonado, who mocked Fidel’s death in an online video.

“After Pope Francis’ trip to Cuba, you suggested that you may return to the church and pray again. My prayer for you and the Cuban people is that you listen to Pope Francis and focus on bringing absolute freedom and democracy to Cuba,” Scott wrote. “I pray that you open Cuba to freedom of the press and religion; release all political prisoners; provide unfettered access to the internet; allow ownership of land; provide reparations to those whose property was confiscated; bring all Cuban military home and allow for free and fair elections with international supervision.”

Full story here.

Photo credit: Walter Michot / Miami Herald

December 18, 2016

Approaching Trump presidency mutes White House celebration of Obama Cuba policy

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@PatriciaMazzei @ngameztorres

It could have been a celebration of one of President Barack Obama’s most significant foreign-policy legacies. Instead, on Thursday, almost two years to the day when Obama single-handedly overturned U.S. policy toward Cuba, the White House assembled Cuban Americans, Cuban government officials and business partners in Washington to offer the best reassurances they could come up with that their efforts had not been in vain.

President Obama himself has spoken to President-elect Donald Trump about the importance of holding the course on Cuba. And once out of office, Obama intends to remain involved in Cuba matters as a private citizen, several meeting attendees told the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

“He absolutely will,” said Ric Herrero, one of more than 20 Cuban Americans who met with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.

Obama did not attend the private meetings, held across the street from the White House at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on a bitterly cold Washington day, though he sent each person a letter encouraging them “to carry forward the work of strengthening our partnership in the years ahead.” Over an informal lunch, attendees noshed on medianoche sandwiches, lechón and empanadas.

The White House did not specifically respond to a request for comment on the president’s Cuba plans or conversation with Trump. It’s unclear when the two men discussed Cuba, though they recently spoke by phone the day after Cuba announced Fidel Castro’s death.

More here.

Photo credit: Al Diaz, Miami Herald