June 13, 2017

Rex Tillerson doesn't get into Cuba policy review specifics during Senate hearing

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@alextdaugherty 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not get into specifics when asked about President Donald Trump's Cuba announcement set for Friday in Miami as senators from both parties questioned Tillerson during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday.

"Can you give us some of the general contours you see shaping up relative to what that policy is going to be?" asked committee chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and Trump ally. 

"The general approach...is to allow as much of this continued commercial and engagement activity go to on as possible," Tillerson said. "We do see the sunny side as I describe it, we do see the benefits of that and to the Cuban people. But on the other hand, we think we have achieved very little in terms of changing the behavior of the regime in Cuba and the treatment of its people. Our concern is that they may be the biggest beneficiaries of all of this which promotes the continuance of that regime." 

Tillerson said that pressure on the Cuban government to implement democratic reforms "has been, in our view, largely removed now" after former President Barack Obama strengthened relations between the United States and Cuba in 2016. 

"I was down there not long ago and America has always felt that if it could do more business with folks it would pave the way for democracy," Corker said. "I do hope we end up with a policy that will cause the Cuban people themselves to reach their aspirations." 

New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall, a supporter of Obama's efforts, rattled off a host of business ventures now possible in Cuba after Obama's changes, including the introduction of Airbnb into the Cuban economy. 

"Do you agree we should continue these efforts or do you believe we should return to the failed policies of the Cold War?" Udall asked. 

"Well, what you have described is the sunny side of the relationship and it's all positive and it's great," Tillerson said. "There is the dark side though and that is Cuba has failed to improve it's own human rights record. What we have to achieve in approaching Cuba is if were going to sustain the sunny side of this relationship Cuba must begin to address the human rights challenges. Within the sunny side of the relationship there are troubling elements to us that bring the relationship into conflict with existing statute obligations. Are we inadvertently or directly providing financial support to the regime? Our view is, we are." 

Tillerson also said he supports efforts to improve internet access in Cuba, but hedged that the focus of the policy review is making sure the Cuban government does not financially benefit from increased U.S. involvement on the island. 

In late May, 55 senators from both parties signed on to a bill that would fully eliminate travel restrictions to the island. 

Cuban-American lawmakers Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart — who favor the elimination of what they see as concessions to the Cuban government — have been involved in the Cuba review in recent months. 

Friday's announcement will reportedly take place at the Manuel Artime Theater, a former church that is symbolic for Cuban exiles. 

June 12, 2017

Trump has not yet read final Cuba policy proposal

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via @ngameztorres

President Donald Trump is scheduled to announce a revised policy on relations with Cuba on Friday in Miami, but a White House spokeswoman told el Nuevo Herald that Trump had not yet seen the final recommendations following a lengthy review and has not made a decision.

“The president has not seen the final proposal and has not approved it. He is a very independent president in his way of thinking and it would not be the first time he throws something back to be reviewed,” White House spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré said.

She did say that the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana is one of the places the White House has been looking at for events to be held in the city.

The Miami Herald reported Monday that the theater canceled an event on Friday from the Miami Royal Ballet apparently to make way for a White House event.

Among the changes that would be considered by the Trump administration are measures to limit business ventures between U.S. companies and Cuban entities controlled by the military, in particular, those belonging to the conglomerate known as GAESA, the economic arm of the Revolutionary Armed Forces that controls nearly 60 percent of the Cuban economy. 

“The United States Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is expected to publish a list of Cuban entities controlled by the” Cuban military, said John Kavulich, president of U.S. Cuba Trade and Economic Council. Companies could be added to an OFAC blacklist to ban financial transactions involving these companies, he added.

Aguirre Ferré said a proposal to prohibit business with GAESA, “is one of the many possibilities discussed. It is being considered as one of the many options.

“But almost everything is being looked at.”

--NORA GAMEZ TORRES

Photo credit: Getty Images

Miami venue apparently set for Trump Cuba announcement

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@PatriciaMazzei

President Donald Trump plans to present his new Cuba policy Friday in Miami's Manuel Artime Theater, the Miami Herald has learned.

The White House apparently picked the venue over the Bay of Pigs museum in Little Havana, which is probably too small to accommodate all of the logistics of a traveling president. The Freedom Tower downtown is unavailable because it is undergoing renovations until November.

On Monday, theater managers notified at least one group -- a ballet school -- that it would have to move its scheduled rehearsal Thursday to accommodate an "emergency meeting" Friday. The Miami Royal Ballet then informed parents the city told them "there will be a White House event at the theater."

The White House has yet to release Trump's schedule. Without confirming the Miami event, a spokeswoman said the Artime theater was one of several locations under consideration.

The Artime theater, a former church, is symbolic for Cuban exiles. Manuel Artime was an exile leader with Brigade 2506, the Bay of Pigs veterans' group that endorsed Trump last October. The community theater frequently houses grassroots events that cannot afford grander venues.

--with David Smiley and Nora Gámez Torres

June 09, 2017

Trump's coming to Miami next Friday to announce Cuba policy

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President Donald Trump will travel to Miami next Friday to announce his administration’s changes to U.S.-Cuba policy, a source with knowledge of the president’s plans told the Miami Herald.

The location for the event is still in the works. But scheduling the trip indicates the Cuba policy, which has been undergoing drafts for several weeks, will be imminently finalized. And deciding to unveil the policy in Miami suggests it will please the hardline Cuban exiles whose support Trump considered significant to winning Florida, and the presidency.

Vice President Mike Pence is also expected to attend. He will already be in town for a Central America conference to be held next Thursday and Friday at Florida International University. Three Cabinet secretaries — Rex Tillerson of State, John Kelly of Homeland Security and Steven Mnuchin of Treasury — will take part in the conference, but it’s not clear that they’ll take part in the Cuba policy event.

Several local venues have symbolism for Cuban Americans, including the Bay of Pigs Museum in Little Havana and the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami.

A mid-June Trump visit has been rumored since Memorial Day, when word of the Cuba policy rewrite began trickling from alarmed backers of former President Barack Obama’s reengagement approach toward the communist island. Trump is preparing to tighten at least some of Obama’s changes, including restricting business with the Cuban military and U.S. travel that resembles tourism.

More here.

Photo credit: Al Diaz, Miami Herald staff

GOP lawmakers from outside Florida urge Trump to keep Obama Cuba policy

@ngameztorres @PatriciaMazzei

Seven Republican members of Congress who favor closer U.S. ties to Cuba sent President Donald Trump a letter Thursday urging him to reconsider revising the reengagement policy set by former President Barack Obama. A Trump policy is expected soon.

The congressmen -- none of them from Florida -- argued the U.S. has a national security interest in maintaining a foothold in Cuba. They represents districts that in some cases see serious agricultural, industrial or commercial opportunities in Cuba.

"For instance, Russia is already strengthening its ties with Cuba, supporting infrastructure investment and resuming oil shipments for the first time this century," they wrote. "China is also expanding its footprint in Cuba as well. China is now Cuba's largest trading partner and heavily invested in providing telecommunications services, among other investments, on the island."

"Reversing course would incentivize Cuba to once again become dependent on countries like Russia and China," they continued. "Allowing this to happen could have disastrous results for the security of the United States. Alternatively, we can counter the growing threat of foreign influence in our region by engaging with our island neighbor."

Signing the letter were Reps. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, Rick Crawford of Arkansas, Ted Poe of Texas, Darin LaHood of Illinois, Roger Marshall of Kansas, James Comer of Kentucky and Jack Bergman of Michigan.

Read the congressmen's letter here. 

On Thursday, three Republican senators with similar views also National Security Adviser Henry McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laying out their own case for sticking to the Obama policy.

Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Mike Enzi of Wyoming and John Boozman of Arkansas wrote that increasing U.S. travel and business ties to Cuba helped improve the lives of Cubans and expand the island's private sector. Like the congressmen, they argued the Obama policy benefited American interests -- and undoing them would be detrimental.

"To conclude, there are those who suggest that any changes in U.S.-Cuba policy are concessions that must be met by some definitive action by the Cubans," the senators wrote, without naming Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and others who have made that argument. "Instead, we view recent reforms to U.S.-Cuba policy as providing critical strategic advances that have already benefited everyday Cubans and provided direct benefits to Americans by enhancing U.S. national security and boosting the U.S. economy. We strongly urge you to weigh carefully any rollback of policies that would endanger these benefits."

Read the senators' letter here.

This post has been updated.

June 08, 2017

Miami Republican who bashed rival for Havana photos had ties to Cuba exporter

@PatriciaMazzei

The Republican primary in a special Florida House race has quickly become a battle over the granddaddy of Miami political issues: Cuba, and which Cuban-American candidate is a more staunch opponent of the island's communist regime.

Jose Mallea, whose campaign last week attacked rival Daniel Anthony Perez for taking wedding engagement photos in Havana despite opposing U.S. policy that would make that sort of trip possible, has old ties of his own to a well-known local exporter to Cuba.

As the Miami New Times noted Thursday, the Miami Herald reported in 2010 that Mallea co-chaired a political fundraising committee with Ariel Pereda, a longtime adviser to companies looking to trade with Cuba.

Over its active life of about six years, the Future Leadership Committee raised some $243,000. It spent tens of thousands of dollars to campaign workers for then-state Rep. David Rivera, an anti-embargo Cuba hardliner who in 2010 was running for Congress.

The committee shared an address with two of Pereda's firms, PM Strategies and The Havana Group. As first reported by the New Times, Mallea conceded to lobbying for PM Strategies for three months in 2007, on behalf of Dell Computers.

"It had nothing to do with Cuba," Mallea told the Herald on Thursday. "What he chooses to do as a private citizen, while I disagree with him, shouldn't reflect on me just because I have a relationship with the guy."

Pereda has had longstanding ties with Miami-Dade County Republicans despite their ideological disagreements over Cuba; his lawyer in 2010 was Nelson Diaz, who now chairs the Miami-Dade GOP, and U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo sat on the board of PM Strategies, before Curbelo was elected to Congress and before Pereda dived into the Cuba business, Curbelo has said.

Mallea stressed to the New Times that, unlike his opponent, he hasn't traveled to Cuba: "As the son of a Cuban father whose family was torn apart, I would never honor the Castro dictatorship with my presence, much less with my dollars."

June 01, 2017

How Cuba policy ensnared Trump's White House

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@PatriciaMazzei @ngameztorres @anitakumar01 @FrancoOrdonez

To unveil President Donald Trump’s new U.S.-Cuba policy, his young administration had eyed a day brimming with symbolism: May 20, Cuban Independence Day.

But as the date approached, and rumors flew in Washington and Miami about a potential announcement, the overwhelmed White House conceded none was coming. Its review of existing policy and regulation wasn’t complete — and still isn’t.

Instead, when May 20 arrived, Trump issued what Cuba considered his harshest statement yet as president about the island’s communist regime, saying that “cruel despotism cannot extinguish the flame of freedom in the hearts of Cubans.”

“The Cuban people deserve a government that peacefully upholds democratic values, economic liberties, religious freedoms, and human rights, and my administration is committed to achieving that vision,” Trump said.

The statement, released on a Saturday by a president engulfed in Russia scandals, received little national attention. But it infuriated Cuban leader Raúl Castro’s government — and started a panic among U.S. activists desperate to keep former President Barack Obama’s Cuba policy. 

Now both sides of the Cuba policy debate are pressuring Trump to reject or uphold Obama’s most important foreign-policy legacy in the Western Hemisphere, with a decision from the president expected in coming weeks.

More here.

Photo credit: Al Diaz, Miami Herald staff

May 30, 2017

Miami Republican candidate took wedding engagement photos in Cuba

The Knot screen shot
@PatriciaMazzei

A Miami Republican running in a special Florida House election traveled earlier this year to Cuba, where he and his fiancée posed for engagement photos in Havana.

Daniel Anthony Perez, a 29-year-old attorney and first-time candidate for House District 116, described it as a family trip to see his fiancée's elderly uncle.

"It was to visit a family member," Perez said Tuesday to a Miami Herald reporter who asked about the photos, which are posted online. "We did take pictures while we were there. But the main reason we went was to visit her uncle. We took food, we took medicine."

Cuban Americans are generally allowed to travel to Cuba for family reunification purposes, but not for outright tourism -- which is especially frowned upon among older Cuban Americans who tend to be reliable voters in local Republican primaries.

"This is Miami, and people can interpret things the wrong way," Perez said. "I am 100 percent against the Cuban government and everything it stands for, but I was not going to let my fiancée go to Cuba alone."

Perez said former President Barack Obama did not push Cuba's communist government to loosen its grip on civil society before reestablishing diplomatic relations. 

"We opened up travel to Cuba without getting anything in return," Perez said. "There are still people being oppressed."

Perez has filed to run to replace Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Republican who resigned to seek a state Senate seat. Perez is up against fellow Republican Jose Mallea, a former Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio aide. Qualifying ends June 6.

Perez and his fiancée, Stephanie Nicolas, posted their engagement photos on The Knot, a popular wedding planning website. The couple's profile is public. The engagement section was removed shortly after this story was published.

The photos were also posted by PS Photography, a Miami-based studio. The studio removed the photos shortly after this story was published.

"When Stephanie and Danny decided to do their engagement session in Havana, Cuba we were over the top excited," the photographers, who described themselves as Cuban-American, wrote in a February blog post dedicated to the couple, titled "Stephanie and Danny Havana Engagement Session Part One." (Two other posts followed.) "The trip to Cuba was everything. We truly came back feeling like we learned more about who we are and where we came from."

In the blog post, the studio said the session took place over four days: two in Havana and two in the colonial town of Viñales. But Perez said the photos were shot over a single day in Havana. The photographers paid their own way, according to Perez. PS Photography confirmed Perez's version to the Herald in an email after this story was published.

"Please do not contact us anymore," the photographers said.

The photos show the couple, in various outfits, posing along Havana's Malecón seawall, in the streets of Old Havana and inside a dilapidated house with a grand staircase.

This post has been updated.

Engagement session 1

May 26, 2017

55 senators sign on to bill eliminating U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba

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via @ngameztorres

As the Cuba policy review reaches its final stage, politicians, companies and organizations that support the policy of engagement are making an extra effort to send a message to Donald Trump: Mr. President, do not eliminate opportunities to travel to the island.

Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) re-introduced a bill Thursday to eliminate all prohibitions to travel to Cuba. The bill, which had only eight co-sponsors when first filed in 2015, now has the support of 55 senators from both parties.

“As the administration is finalizing its Cuba policy review, it is important to show that a bipartisan majority in the Senate supports not only not rolling back the measures that President Obama took to expand travel, but to go even further and remove all restrictions,” James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, told el Nuevo Herald. Engage Cuba is a coalition of companies and organizations that lobby to eliminate sanctions to Cuba.

The bill would remove all restrictions on U.S. citizens and residents to travel to Cuba, and will authorize the associated banking transactions made by travelers. A similar project was presented in the House but with fewer sponsors.

Even if the bill is not discussed on the Senate floor, said Williams, it sends a strong message to the White House that there is support for the current policy of engagement.

More here.

Photo credit: Ramon Espinosa, Associated Press

May 23, 2017

To win friends under Trump, Cuban diplomats travel across America

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via @HeraldMimi

Cuban diplomats have been traveling across the United States so frequently since President Donald Trump took office that the slogan of the Cuban Embassy in Washington could be “See America First.”

They've spoken at college campuses from Harvard University to Montana State and logged miles in Pennsylvania, Montana, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Louisiana, the Washington suburbs and most recently Florida. They’ve visited mayors, governors, and legislators along the way and collected proclamations in support of lifting the embargo from city councils and mayors.

So far this month, Cuban Ambassador to the U.S. José Ramón Cabañas traveled to Baltimore to receive Cuban artists participating in a joint show with American artists called “Building Bridges: The Politics of Love, Identity and Race,” spent four days filled with meetings in the Tampa Bay area, and traveled to Kentucky where he met with Gov. Matt Bevin, the mayors of Lexington and Louisville and Kentucky business executives — and the month isn’t even over yet.

In the Bluegrass State, Cabañas tweeted he was the first Cuban representative to be invited to the Kentucky Derby and posted pictures of Churchill Downs. He also posed with Cuban Americans who had restored a monument to 19th century Cuban patriot José Martí in Shively, Ky., and learned about making barrels for bourbon, beer, wine and rum at the Kelvin Cooperage.

At the end of April, he was in New Orleans for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival where Cuba was the featured foreign country and some 150 Cuban artists and musicians participated. A Cuban flag was among those that flew from the center flagpole at Jazz Fest. 

The goal of the frenetic travel: to win friends and influence people and make sure the fledgling U.S.-Cuba relationship continues to improve under the new administration.

More here.

Photo credit: Chris Urso, Tampa Bay Times