April 18, 2016

Former Miami U.S. attorney had asked Justice Department to investigate Carnival cruise to Cuba

@PatriciaMazzei

Before Carnival Corp. announced Monday it would postpone its upcoming cruise to Cuba if Cuban-born Americans couldn't buy tickets, it faced political pressure from all sides -- including, as it turns out, from a one-time Miami federal prosecutor.

Former U.S. Attorney Bob Martinez had asked the Justice Department last week to investigate whether Carnival's trip would violate civil-rights protections. He had tried to book passage on the cruise and was told he couldn't because he was born in Cuba.

"I thought that was pretty outrageous," he said. "It kind of just hits you, like, 'Whoa, what do you mean I can't? I'm a U.S. citizen."

The cruise company had originally planned to set sail even if the Cuban government continued to prohibit Cuban-born Americans from traveling to the island by sea. It now intends to postpone the May 1 voyage if Cuba doesn't lift its decree before then.

"Smart," Martinez said Monday.

Last Thursday, he wrote Attorney General Loretta Lynch. He's yet to get a response but said he knows his letter got read by some DOJ folks.

"That the U.S. civil rights laws prohibit national origin discrimination should not be surprising to anyone, least of all to a major U.S. business, such as Carnival, with its operational headquarters based in Miami, Florida. And yet, that is exactly what Carnival is doing," he wrote. "Shamelessly, Carnival tries to absolve itself from its illegal conduct by pointing its finger at the Cuban Government and blaming it for its discriminatory laws. But, it is Carnival that is playing the role of the Cuban Government police, doing its dirty work by enforcing the Cuban Government's discriminatory laws. Carnival is willing to play that role for business reasons."

In a statement Monday, Carnival CEO Arnold Donald said he expects Cuba to change its regulations.

"We want everyone to be able to go to Cuba with us," he said.

Read Martinez's letter: Letter

April 16, 2016

Carnival cruise to Cuba leads to rare, unintended bipartisan agreement against company's plans

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@PatriciaMazzei @Chabelih

Carnival Corp.’s scheduled sail to Cuba — even if Cuban-born Americans can’t buy tickets — has accomplished a rare and unintended political feat: bipartisan agreement against the cruise company’s plans.

Republican and Democratic members of Congress and candidates running for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives told the Miami Herald on Friday that Carnival shouldn’t transport passengers to the island while Cuba maintains its policy barring native Cubans from traveling by sea to their country of birth.

Asked about the mounting political pressure, a Carnival spokesman said Friday afternoon the company hopes Cuba will lift its decree before the ship’s departure.

“We continue to believe that Cuba will modify its regulation before we sail on May 1 based on our ongoing discussions with Cuban officials, so we will be able to cruise there on our inaugural cruise under the same regulations as aircraft do today,” Carnival spokesman Roger Frizzell said in a statement.

“We appreciate and understand the concerns being voiced, and we have confidence this issue will be resolved before we ever sail.”

Opposing the trip were three Senate candidates (Republicans Carlos Beruff of Sarasota and Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, and Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando), Miami’s three Republicans in Congress (Reps. Carlos Curbelo, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen), and Curbelo’s two Democratic rivals (former Rep. Joe Garcia and Annette Taddeo).

More here.

Photo courtesy Carnival Corp.

April 14, 2016

Miami congressman shares concerns over whether Cuba is ready for more air travel

@PatriciaMazzei

Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo gave a thumbs up Thursday to his colleagues in Congress asking the Obama administration for additional scrutiny of air passengers traveling to the U.S. from Cuba.

Three Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives -- Michael McCaul of Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security; John Katko of New York and Scott Perry of California -- wrote Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson earlier this week asking for answers to a series of questions about safety screenings at Cuban airports, now that more people are making the trip from the island.

"We are concerned that the rapid speed at which preparations for regular commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba will come at the cost of failing to ensure that adequate safety and security protocols are in place," they wrote. "This could jeopardize the safety of U.S. travelers and our homeland and national security."

They noted Havana's airport "does not have adequate terminal or tarmac space" and said they're worried a crush of new passengers could lead to costly security mistakes.

Curbelo agreed.

"Senior U.S. intelligence officials have made it clear there are serious safety concerns with Cuban government workers, who are ill-trained and lacking proper equipment to adequately screen commercial air passengers," Curbelo said in a statement Thursday. "From the devastating terrorist attacks in Europe, we have learned that we must do everything we can to keep those intending to do us harm out of our country and bringing this issue to light is a bold first step."

Read the congressmen's letter: Letter

Marco Rubio blasts Senate for refusing vote on end to welfare benefits for Cuban 'refugees'

 

@PatriciaMazzei

The U.S. Senate refused to vote Thursday on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s bid to stop giving welfare benefits to Cuban immigrants, prompting an exasperated Rubio to take to the Senate floor to blast political paralysis in Congress.

“This is why people are so sick of politics,” said Rubio, who noted that, until a month ago, he was a Republican presidential candidate hearing from voters about their frustrations with lawmakers. “You can vote for a Democrat, you can vote for a Republican, you can vote for a vegetarian. It doesn’t matter who you vote for: Nothing happens. These people don’t do anything.”

“No one can argue this,” he added of his proposal, which he argued would put an end to abuse by some Cubans who take the welfare dollars back to the island. “But I can’t even get a vote on an amendment to change this.”

And why not? According to Rubio, because fellow Republicans tell him, “‘We can’t vote on it because if we give you your amendment, then we have to give the other side their amendment.’” (The other side being Democrats.)

“This is crazy. This is nuts. We can’t solve problems,” Rubio said. He noted the plan has bipartisan support: U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, is a cosponsor in the House of Representatives. Florida’s senior senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, signed on to Rubio’s bill Thursday, saying the welfare benefits “were meant to help those fleeing persecution by Castro’s oppressive regime, not to be a source of income for those who returned to Cuba.”

More here.

John Kerry condemns Cuba policy banning Cuban Americans from cruise travel to island

via @oppenheimera

Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday condemned Cuba’s policy of discriminating against Cuban-born Americans who want to travel to the island by sea, and criticized Carnival Corp. for enforcing that rule.

“The United States government will never support, never condone discrimination. And the Cuban government should not have the right to enforce on us a policy of discrimination against people who have the right to travel,” Kerry said during an interview with the Miami Herald and CNN en Español in Miami.

“American citizens, Cuban-Americans, have a right to travel, and we should not be in a situation where the Cuban government is forcing its discrimination policy on us. So we call on the government of Cuba to change that policy and to recognize that if they want full relations and normal relationship with the United States, they have to live by international laws, not exclusively by Cuban laws.”

Asked whether Carnival should postpone its plans to start cruises to Cuba until Cuban-born Americans are allowed to travel the island, Kerry said, “Carnival needs to not discriminate.”

Kerry was in Miami for a graduation speech at Miami Dade College.

This developing story will be updated here.

April 09, 2016

Miami’s once-mighty political guard left out of conversation on Cuba

US NEWS BAYOFPIGS 6 MCT

@PatriciaMazzei

President Barack Obama’s historic trip to Cuba last month marked the culmination of a foreign policy he laid out eight years as ago as a candidate, when he broke with his predecessors and pledged to sit down with unfriendly dictators, because punishing them with silence seemed “ridiculous.”

He did more than just meet with Raúl Castro. Obama, flexing his office’s extensive executive power over international affairs, dismantled almost every piece of the U.S.’s Cold War-era approach to Cuba.

Left out of the conversation: anyone who disagreed, including the eight Cuban Americans — Republican and Democrat — in Congress 57 years after the Cuban revolution. Half of them — one senator and three representatives — hail from Miami, the new city exiles made in Havana’s old image.

For eight years, they’ve had zero input on the issue on which some of them built their political careers. And now they face the prospect of four or eight more years of the same, with a new White House tenant come January. Castro has promised to retire in 2018.

Miami’s Cuban-American political guard risks losing any influence it has left at a time when Cuba could undergo its most sweeping changes.

“There’s no doubt about it,” said Pepe Hernández, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, which supports the Cuba policy Obama unveiled 15 months ago. “Like they say in dominó, they have been shuffled off the table, quite substantially, in the past few years — but especially since Dec. 17, 2014.

“But I don’t think, honestly, they care much.”

They don’t.

“I’m not hurt at all — it frees up my day,” Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said of not talking to Obama. “He’s of no consequence to us.”

But what about the next president?

More here.

Photo credit: Astrid Riecken, MCT

March 31, 2016

A Miami Herald reporter reflects on five days in Havana

Obama US Cuba(3) (1)

@PatriciaMazzei

HAVANA -- A few steps from la esquina caliente, the shady spot in Havana’s Parque Central where men gather at all hours to engage in their favorite Cuban pastime — talking baseball — a 54-year-old sailor who gave his name as Manuel de Jesús Richards Adams admired the ornate theater across the street. He hoped to glimpse at President Barack Obama.

Obama didn’t plan to deliver his landmark speech at the Gran Teatro until the next day. But to Richards, Obama’s schedule remained a mystery.

“Do you know if he’s there?” he asked me. “Do you know when he’s coming?”

In Cuba, people don’t know.

And not only about Obama’s itinerary, though the lack of detailed information about his visit seemed particularly stunning given how palpably excited Cubans felt about his trip.

Down Old Havana’s busiest drag, Obispo Street, 34-year-old Alexander Noriega sold wooden statues — whittled by his uncle — at a small handicraft market. He seemed surprised to learn Obama had held a news conference moments earlier, side by side with Cuban leader Raúl Castro, who was forced to field a couple of reporters’ questions.

“They’ll show it to us later,” Noriega said confidently, referring to state-run television. His assumption proved only partially correct: A government network did re-air the joint appearance — but without the inconvenient Q&A bit where Castro was asked about political prisoners.

In Cuba, people don’t know what they don’t know.

More here.

Photo credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

March 25, 2016

Spring Break in Havana for Miami's business elite

Obama US Cuba(3)

@PatriciaMazzei

HAVANA -- Mojitos, strawberry daiquiris and hand towels awaited the well-heeled guests that strolled into the Saratoga Hotel. The lobby felt like the airy foyer of a Havana country clubhouse of old — right down to its members:

Almost all hailed from Miami.

Hugs and backslaps, handshakes and introductions. Half the men sported blue blazers and khakis; the other unwrapped matching guayaberas in picture-perfect baby blues and pale pinks.

If you panned across the room at any given moment this week, you had to blink twice to make sure you weren’t in a hotel in Brickell. There was developer and tech entrepreneur Manny Medina. And healthcare magnate Mike Fernandez. And condo king Jorge Pérez. Attorneys Pedro Freyre and Ralph Patino. Big Sugar’s Andres Fanjul. Businessman Carlos Saladrigas. Former U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Paul Cejas helping himself to brunch. Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez hopping on an elevator with businessmen Enrique Sosa and Ariel Pereda.

“This is literally a 45-minute flight away,” said Joe Arriola, the Miami-Dade County Public Health Trust chairman, who was also at the Saratoga. He pointed to communist regimes in faraway China and Vietnam. In Cuba, he maintained, “Things are going to change so much faster.”

Miami’s Cuban-American business elite spent spring break in Havana, chasing President Barack Obama. Some took part in official White House events. Others lingered in the periphery, witnessing history — and trying to figure out how to prod it along with the power of their wallets.

Don’t call it a vacation.

“I’m going to work. I’m not going there to play,” Fernandez, who gave some of the others a lift to Havana aboard his private plane, said the day he departed Miami. “I don’t drink, and I’m a lousy dancer, so I’m not going there to play.”

More here.

Photo credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

Florida is No. 3 in agricultural imports to Cuba

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe sees Cuba as a land of opportunity.

Amid President Barack Obama’s historic trip to Cuba this past week, McAuliffe said in an interview that Virginia already has made impressive headway in tapping the island nation’s export market.

"Virginia now is the number one exporter of ag (agricultural) products to Cuba," McAuliffe said during a March 21 MSNBC interview. "We have now jumped to number one."

In January, the governor returned from a trip to Cuba aimed at bolstering the commonwealth’s commercial ties with the nation. The U.S. still has a decades-long embargo on most trade with Cuba. But a 2000 law allows limited exports of agricultural products and medical equipment. In 2014, Obama re-established formal diplomatic relations with Cuba.

McAuliffe supports ending the trade embargo.

Brian Coy, the governor’s spokesman, pointed us to a Feb. 12 news release where McAuliffe announced that last year Virginia exported $41.6 million in agricultural goods to Cuba, all of it soybeans and soybean meal. In past years, Virginia also has shipped apples, poultry and beef. McAuliffe said the 2015 export tally was the most that any state had sent to Cuba that year.

We tracked down the same trade figures through an online database provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It shows that in 2015, Virginia’s $41.6 million indeed was the most of any state, followed by Georgia, which had $30.9 million in agricultural exports to Cuba; and Florida, which had $29.9 million in exports.

Keep reading the fact-check by Sean Gorman of PolitiFact Virginia here and here is our round-up of fact-checks about Cuba including Hillary Clinton's flip flop on the embargo.

March 24, 2016

Fact-checking House Speaker Paul Ryan's claim about Cuba and terrorists

As President Barack Obama works to restore relations with Cuba, opponents of the policy shift cite Cuban practices that they see as contradictory to U.S. interests.

"To this day, this is a regime that provides safe harbor to terrorists and fugitives," said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., in a March 17 news conference.

We were curious about Ryan’s claim, particularly because last year the Obama administration removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Cuba first made the list in 1982, when the country was actively supporting communist revolutions in the thick of the Cold War.

There are some U.S. fugitives and a handful of terrorists living in Cuba, but experts told us these are more remnants of the Cold War rather than a staple of modern Cuban policy.

Ryan’s statement is "accurate but outdated," said Ted Piccone, senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Project on International Order and Strategy and Latin America Initiative.

Keep reading Lauren Carroll's fact-check here from PolitiFact.