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.

August 04, 2017

Trump says he won 84 percent of the Cuban-American vote. Fake news?

TMM17+Trump+News+rk (2)

@ngameztorres

President Donald Trump told Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in a phone conversation that he won 84 percent of the Cuban-American vote in the November elections.

“In the latest election, I won with a large percentage of Hispanic voters. I do not know if you heard, but with Cuba, I had 84 percent, with the Cuban-American vote,” Trump said during the Jan. 27 call, according to a transcript published Thursday by The Washington Post.

But the best estimates of Trump's share of the Cuban-American vote in November are far, far lower — 50 to 58 percent — and experts say they have no idea where Trump could have gotten his number.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

No one knows exactly how Cuban Americans vote because the process is secret, but many voters are regularly surveyed at exit polls to determine their preferences.

Another way to estimate preferences is to look at the residents of voting precincts and try to align them with vote results. Such estimates, however, depend in part on how the residents define themselves — just as Hispanic or specifically Cuban American, for example.

But none of the estimates of Cuban-American votes for Trump reached 84 percent.

Let’s take a look at exit polls first. An exit poll by the non-partisan Edison Research, which does polling for CNN and Fox, gave Trump 54 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Florida. About 67 percent of the 1.2 million voters of Cuban origin live in Florida, according to the Pew Research Center.

 

Latino Decision, a Democratic polling firm, gave Trump 52 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Florida, based on a November election eve poll. The firm estimated that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won about half the Cuban-American vote nationwide, indicating that Cuban-American voters outside Florida tend to be less conservative.

Immediately after the election, Republicans and Democrats clashed over the numbers.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, former executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC who was appointed by Trump to the Treasury Department, estimated that Trump won 58 percent of the Cuban-American vote based on his review of results from about 30 Miami-Dade precincts with large Cuban-American populations.

Democratic strategist Giancarlo Sopo and Florida International University professor Guillermo Grenier estimated that Trump won 50 percent of the Cuban-American vote after reviewing results from Hialeah, Westchester and West Miami.

Democratic pollsters and analysts said exit polls also showed Trump did not do as well as Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate in 2012, who won an estimated 65 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Florida.

Sopo and Grenier concluded that the Cuban-American vote in Florida was “important but not decisive” for Trump's victory.

“Even under Mauricio's (Claver-Carone) analysis there wasn't a single Cuban precinct where Trump got 84 percent of the vote,” said Sopo.

Read more here.

July 28, 2017

ICE is holding more than 1,300 Cuban migrants in detention centers

Nuevo_Laredo_Cubans_17_BRO
via @ngameztorres

They are teachers, engineers or farmers, all seeking freedom in the United States. But after an unexpected policy change and an end to special treatment that allowed the majority of Cuban migrants to remain legally in the country, more than 1,300 are now being held at detention centers across the country awaiting for their fate to be decided by immigration judges.

“What I heard were stories of people who felt that they literally could not live in Cuba anymore,” said Wendi Adelson, executive director of the Immigration Partnership & Coalition (IMPAC) Fund, a Florida-based organization that raises funds for the defense of undocumented residents without criminal convictions.

“Many say that not even in their wildest dreams would they have imagined that the United States would treat them this way,” she said. “They thought that this was a country of freedom and this was what they came for, to live without the government having its boots on their necks — and now this?”

Adelson recently visited four detention centers in Texas — two in Laredo (the Laredo and Rio Grande detention centers); one in Pearsall (South Texas Detention Facility); and the fourth near Austin, which is only for women detainees (T. Don Hutto Residential Center) — to identify those in need of legal representation.

She met with 16 Cuban detainees, mostly men. 

“Many said, 'Look, I've never committed any crime. I'm not a criminal, I'm not a gang member. I'm just a teacher, a husband, a normal person.' They are in a detention center for immigrants but for them it’s a prison,” the lawyer added.

More here.

Photo credit: Bob Owen, San Antonio Express-News

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

19146528_8col
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