July 27, 2015

Senate bill to boost trade with Cuba faces long odds, despite win


Legislation designed to boost agricultural trade with Cuba passed out of a U.S. Senate committee last week, joining a separate bill that would ease restrictions on travel to the island.

But for those interested in a return to full trade and travel between the U.S. and Cuba, the actions last week represent only a sliver of hope that the mood of Congress is thawing as much as President Barack Obama would like.

“I’m more optimistic that the pressure is increasing to do something in Congress,” said Carl Meacham, a former senior Republican aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who serves as director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But what happens because of that pressure is dependent on a range of issues – from the attitude of Senate leadership to the dynamics of presidential politics, he said. And then the measures will have to go through the House of Representatives as well.

“And I don’t see the House going the way of the Senate,” Meacham said.

The legislation last week was sponsored by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and represents one of the strategies lawmakers are employing to boost trade with Cuba.

In December, leaders in the U.S. and Cuba announced a thawing of relations between the two nations after decades of limited trade, travel and diplomacy. While some aspects of trade and travel with the island nation have been loosened, many other restrictions remain.

For full story, here.

July 24, 2015

Conditions tied to possible President Obama visit to Cuba

via @ngameztorres

The Obama administration will evaluate the progress of its new Cuba policy by considering issues such as the arrests of dissidents, access to the Internet and the development of the island’s private sector, according to participants in a recent White House meeting.

The administration would like to see improvements in those areas when it considers a possible visit of President Barack Obama to Cuba, but such progress would not be a prerequisite for the visit as White House spokesman Josh Earnest has indicated, White House and State Department officials told participants in the meeting, which was closed to the news media.

Several people invited to the Wednesday gathering, who asked that they not be identified, told El Nuevo Herald that the government officials mentioned that a possible decision on a trip would be evaluated early next year or in January. The White House denied that any specific month was mentioned.

Participants said Ben Rhodes, deputy National Security Council adviser, told the gathering that a possible Obama trip to Cuba would be evaluated at the beginning of 2016, based on the progress achieved by Cuban authorities on issues that the U.S. government considers to be important, such as human rights.

Rhodes also compared a possible Obama visit to Cuba with the events surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall, one source at the meeting told the newspaper.

More here.

July 22, 2015

In Miami, worries about tourism and Cuban sand


Concerns over the tourism threat Cuba poses to Miami have reached the granular level: Who will have the better sand?

In pitching his new $40 million plan to combat beach erosion, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Tuesday pledged to find replacement sand white enough to hold its own against Cuba’s famously gleaming coast.

“It has some of the best beaches, and most beautiful beaches, in the world,” Gimenez said of Cuba, where he lived until age 7. “We have to face that.”

Gimenez’s warning captures the anxiety in tourism circles over how a newly accessible Cuba might upend the Caribbean vacation market once U.S. tourists are free to travel there. Miami is seen as vulnerable to a Cuban comeback as a U.S. vacation destination, given they both offer sunny getaways during the winter months.

More here.

Pompano Beach bank becomes first to sign agreement with Cuban bank

via @HeraldMimi

In the first major business deal since the United States and Cuba resumed diplomatic relations, Pompano Beach-based Stonegate Banks said Wednesday that it is setting up a correspondent banking relationship with a Cuban financial institution.

Stonegate, a commercial bank with 21 branches in Florida, signed an agreement Tuesday in Havana with Banco Internacional de Comercio. It’s the first correspondent banking deal signed by a U.S. bank with Cuba since the United States and Cuba announced Dec. 17 that they planned to work toward normalization of relations.

BICSA, which was formed in 1993, handles foreign trade financing and foreign exchange transactions and correspondent relationships with banks overseas. Audited annually by Ernst & Young, it has more than 600 correspondent relationships around the world.

“This is another step in terms of normalizing commercial relations between the U.S. and Cuba,” said David Seleski, president and chief executive of Stonegate. “The ability to move money easily between the two countries will only increase trade and benefit American companies wishing to do business in Cuba.”

Under the opening with Cuba, there are also more opportunities for U.S. companies to trade with Cuba, although much of the U.S. trade embargo against the island still remains intact.

More here.

July 20, 2015

'Sad' day for Miami GOP members of Congress over Cuban embassy opening

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The three amigos, as U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen calls herself and Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart, watched Monday morning from Miami as the Cuban flag rose once again in Washington D.C.

In the afternoon, they gathered in Ros-Lehtinen's district office to declare it a "sad" day for Cuban Americans who have fought to keep the dictatorship isolated until the Castro regime becomes a democracy. The three Miami Republicans stood next to posters brandishing images of beaten up Cuban dissidents and the four men who died shot down by the Cuban government in the Brothers to the Rescue flights of 1996.

"There is not enough room in this office to display the faces of the opposition," Ros-Lehtinen said. 

Diaz-Balart said he won't consider a Cuban ambassador or other diplomats representatives of the people who live on the island.

"Cuba's true leaders, those are the ones that are in the prisons,"  Diaz-Balart said, or who've had their professional licenses or rationing cards taken away as a punishment for their political views. "The Castro regime is not the Cuban people. If only we had a president who knew the difference."

Continue reading "'Sad' day for Miami GOP members of Congress over Cuban embassy opening" »

Scott and Lopez-Cantera: We oppose diplomatic relations with Cuba

US CubaGov. Rick Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera took time out of their schedules Monday -- which each listed "no scheduled events" -- to denounce the revival of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States.

The Cuban government reopened its embassy in Washington Monday, flying the Cuban flag over the building for the first time since 1961. Scott and Lopez-Cantera had previously been vocal about their opposition to the move. 

“I stand in firm opposition to the reopening of the Cuban embassy in the United States and the American embassy in Cuba,'' Scott said in a statement. "Last week, the Castro regime arrested 100 peaceful protestors in Cuba. Reestablishing diplomatic ties will only serve to legitimize this sort of oppression. The arrests of peaceful protesters in Cuba have also doubled in the past year and President Obama continues to make concessions to the Castro brothers.

"This move by President Obama will further tie our great nation to the oppressive Castro regime. As Governor, I will continue to stand with the people of Cuba in their pro-democracy movement.” 

Lopez-Cantera, who last week announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate, echoed the sentiments. 

“Today, the Obama Administration capitulated to the Castro regime with no regard for the human rights or liberty of the Cuban people,'' he said in a statement. "I, along with Governor Scott, stand firmly against reestablishing diplomatic ties with Cuba.”

Photo: Andrew Harnik, AP

U.S., Cuba reestablish diplomatic relations

via @HeraldMimi

WASHINGTON -- The red, white and blue Cuban flag was raised over the island’s embassy in Washington on Monday for the first time since 1961 — a fluttering symbol of the historic thaw taking place between the Cold War foes.

As pro and anti-Cuban protestors gathered outside the gates of the embassy chanting “Fidel” and “Justice” — the flag was was raised at about 10:35 EST.

The ceremony came after the United States and Cuba reestablished diplomatic ties early Monday after a 54-year gap.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez led a delegation of 36 Cuban officials and members of Cuba’s cultural world at the ceremony marking the conversion of its interests section in Washington to a full-fledged embassy.

Speaking at the embassy, Rodríguez hailed the new era in diplomatic relations but said they were just the beginning.

More here.

This post has been updated.

July 17, 2015

Keeping score on who's gotten more out of new U.S.-Cuba policy

via @HeraldMimi

As the United States and Cuba prepare to resume diplomatic relations Monday for the first time in 54 years, the debate over who got the better deal in the historic rapprochement continues to swirl, especially in South Florida, where Cuba-watching sometimes resembles a contact sport.

Some say they see positives for both sides and a plus for the United States or say it’s not about who got the upper hand in the negotiations to end more than a half-century of hostilities. Others, such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, say they see “concession after concession” made to a Cuban government that continues to crack down on dissidents and human rights activists.

“What difference does it make who gains more, especially since there is no clear loser?” asks Helene Dudley, a former Peace Corps volunteer who now works with a micro-loan program. “The people of both countries benefit from this win-win deal, and it’s impossible to gauge the ripple effects. We should drop our pettiness toward Cuba. Each side has much cause for regret in actions over the last 100 years. It is time to move forward.”

But for the Cuban-American congressional delegation, the United States got the short end of the stick in the new relationship that officially begins Monday with the opening of respective embassies in Washington, D.C., and Havana.

“The so-called negotiations by the Obama administration have resulted in nothing but a Christmas in July for the Castros,” said South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “With nothing in return from the communist regime, the United States has managed to legitimize the Castro brothers with an American embassy in Havana, has given the Cubans access to financial institutions in the U.S., has promoted an infusion of American tourism to the island, and has delisted Cuba from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list.”

More here.

July 14, 2015

Pro-Cuba engagement PAC reports first fundraising totals


A political action committee formed earlier this year to promote closer ties between the U.S. and Cuba trumpeted its first fundraising totals in a statement Tuesday.

The New Cuba PAC said raised more than $178,000 between May 4 and June 30. Half of the contributions came from Cuban Americans, according to the group's statement. A detailed public report is due to be filed this month to the Federal Election Commission.

One of its fundraisers was held two months ago on Miami Beach with special guest Alan Gross, the former contractor imprisoned for five years in Cuba. The PAC supports, among other things, a proposed Senate bill that would end the American travel ban to the island.

"For some time now polling has shown the American people are way ahead of the politicians in Washington on Cuba policy, and the record travel to the island over the last six months shows their voting with their feet as well," said James Williams, a PAC director. The group's fundraising "sends a strong message to Congress that the American people are also putting their money where their mouth is and want Congress to play a constructive role in this new era."

Critics of the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement have been collecting political funds for years.

Two GOP presidential candidates have compared Mexican immigrants to Mariel boatlift Cubans


Donald Trump, having already infamously characterized Mexican who cross the border as criminals and rapists sent to by their government to pillage America, last week lumped another immigrant group in the same category: Cubans.

Trump told a conservative radio host that Mexican immigrants today are like Cuban exiles who arrived on Florida shores during the Mariel boatlift in 1980.

"If you remember, years ago, when Castro opened up his jails, his prisons, and he sent them all over to the United States because let the United States have them," Trump said in the interview, first reported by BuzzFeed News. "And you know, these were the many hardcore criminals that he sent over. And, you know, that was a long time ago but essentially Mexico is sending over."

He then went on to cite the death of 32-year-old woman in San Francisco, shot apparently at random by man who had previously been deported five times to Mexico. 

The same day, fellow GOP presidential candidate and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul made a similar comparison in a Fox News interview. Though Paul didn't explicitly say Mexicans today are like Cubans in 1980, he used the boatlift as an example of why municipalities today should be banned from restricting their cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

"Remember when the Marielitos were dumped here by Cuba? These were criminals," Paul said. "He emptied his jails, and he just dumped them on us. You want immigration services that work for the federal government to be able to ferret out are criminals being released in to the community."

Fidel Castro's government shipped prisoners and mentally ill patients on Mariel, mixed in with other refugees, and some Cuban exiles who had arrived in previous decades derided the Marielitos, in 1980 and to this day. But Cuban Americans are also fiercely defensive of their community -- and many of the people who immigrated in the boatlift are now voters and parents of voters. Will Trump and Paul -- if they make it that far -- make the same comparison in South Florida?