January 20, 2015

In Spanish, GOP rebuttal to State of the Union mentions Cuba -- but not in English


Newly elected Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo was given the (generally thankless) task Tuesday of delivering the Republican Party's Spanish-language rebuttal to President Obama's State of the Union address. Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst responded in English.

The two freshmen's remarks were mostly the same. They differed, as expected, on matters of biography: Ernst spoke about having a single pair of shoes growing up in Iowa winters, Curbelo said he grew up "in Miami, one of the country's most diverse cities."

But they also diverged on a more substantive matter: Curbelo mentioned Cuba, criticizing "unearned concessions" by the Obama administration to "cruel dictatorships" in Cuba and Iran. Ernst made a separate mention of Iran -- and didn't utter Cuba once.

Curbelo is Cuban-American, so it was not surprising that he would go after Obama on the subject. Obama himself devoted a paragraph of his speech to establishing closer ties with the island, and asked Congress explicitly to lift the trade embargo against Cuba.

What's perhaps more noteworthy is that Ernst said nothing on the subject, highlighting the rift within the GOP about whether rapprochement with Raúl Castro's communist regime is a good idea. Several Republicans -- Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio -- made a statement against Obama's actions by inviting Cuban dissidents and their families to the U.S. Capitol for the president's speech. But other Republicans, including from agricultural states in the heartland, have been much more open to normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations if it will benefit American business interests.

Ernst stayed out of it.

Another difference between the two speeches: Curbelo, an immigration-reform proponent, mentioned "modernizing legal immigration." Ernst didn't bring up immigration at all.

Curbelo also offered "condolences" to France in the wake of the terrorist attack there this month.

The differences are particularly noteworthy because the House GOP said when it announced its rebuttal speakers that Curbelo would offer a translation of Ernst's remarks. Curbelo said Tuesday afternoon that there would be differences, and Republicans changed their tune after Mother Jones reported earlier Tuesday that Ernst's positions -- particularly in support of English as the country's official language -- seemed in conflict with a Spanish-language rebuttal.

Fact-checking claims about Cuba by Marco Rubio, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ana Navarro

President Barack Obama’s administration has hit the reset button on Cuba, setting off a series of political claims from Florida.

On Jan. 15, the federal departments of Treasury and Commerce released new rules that make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba and send money there. While the embargo remains in place -- that could only be lifted by Congress -- the new rules allow increased exports to the island and allow American visitors to return home with some Cuban cigars and rum.

As part of the deal between the two countries, Cuba released USAID worker Alan Gross and another spy whom the government didn’t identify (the Miami Heraldreported that Rolando Sarraff fits the description). Cuba also announced it would release 53 political prisoners -- though news reports stated that two have been arrested again. In return, the United States released three imprisoned Cuban spies.

The rules follow Obama’s Dec. 17 announcement that the United States would normalize relations with Cuba. Florida’s Cuban-American senator, Marco Rubio of Miami, blasted the move, as did some other GOP South Florida members of Congress. (Tampa Bay’s U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat, strongly supported the move.)

Cuba has been a hot topic in Florida politics for decades -- including in last year’s race for governor. But Obama’s announcement paves the way for more debate about Cuba heading into the 2016 presidential election.  Obama will likely mention Cuba in his State of the Union speech, given thatGross will sit with First Lady Michelle Obama. Rubio, meanwhile, has invited Rosa María Payá, daughter of the late activist Oswaldo Payá, who was killed in a suspicious car accident on the island. The GOP response will be given by U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and translated into Spanish by Miami’s U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo.

Here’s a summary of some of PolitiFact Florida's recent fact-checks that relate to Cuba.


January 19, 2015

Alan Gross to sit with Michelle Obama at State of the Union; Marco Rubio invites late Cuban activist's daughter


Alan Gross, the American contractor held for five years in a Cuban prison, will attend Tuesday's State of the Union address as a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama, the White House announced Monday. Gross was released last month as part of President Obama's move to normalize relations with Raúl Castro's government.

Gross won't be the only reminder about how U.S.-Cuba policy will be front and center at the annual speech. Sen. Marco Rubio has invited Rosa María Payá, daughter of activist Oswaldo Payá, who was killed in a suspicious car accident on the island.

Rubio's move is an attempt to highlight his opposition to Obama's rapprochement with Havana. The late Payá was "assassinated" by the Castro regime, Rubio said in a statement, echoing the dissident's family.

"In his remarks, I expect the president will bring up his new Cuba policy, especially since his administration is heading to Havana this week to discuss giving the regime legitimacy and greater access to American dollars it will use to fund its machine of repression –- the very machine that harassed Oswaldo Payá for years, eventually murdered him and pays hush money to potential key witnesses," Rubio said.

"While I disagree with the president's new Cuba policy, I hope Rosa María Payá’s presence on Tuesday night will at least remind him that her father's murderers have not been brought to justice, and that the U.S. is now, in fact, sitting at the table with them."

Separately, the first lady has also invited Nicole Hernandez Hammer, who used to help run the Climate Change Initiative at Florida Atlantic University. She is now a Jupiter-based climate-change consultant, according to her LinkedIn profile

January 16, 2015

Marco Rubio: Obama's Cuba policies 'skirt the law,' and Congress should hold him accountable


Florida Sen. Marco Rubio wants Congress to go after President Obama's Cuba-normalization policies now, while they're still being rolled out, and not after they've already taken effect.

Referring to "accountability on the front end," Rubio told reporters Friday in Miami that he and his U.S. Senate colleagues should push back as the president works to re-establish diplomatic relations with the island's communist regime.

"Are the changes they're making legal in light of existing law? We believe that a lot of them really skirt the law," Rubio said. "So the oversight function of Congress is important."

Rubio has sent letters to Obama and the administration pressing for specifics about the new policies and questioning their compliance with the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, which only Congress could lift. On Thursday, he called new rules easening trade and travel to the island a "windfall" for Cuban President Raúl Castro.

"If there's a silver lining in all of this, it's that for once Cuba is once again being paid attention to," Rubio said at Miami-Dade County Hall, where he swore-in his friend and fellow Republican Esteban "Steve" Bovo as county commission vice-chairman. "We're going to see over the next few months, unfortunately, the true nature of this regime."

The senator noted that two of the 53 political prisoners Cuba released as part of its deal with the U.S. have reportedly been re-arrested. Rubio said he expects more of the released democracy advocates to the "harassed" and taken back into custody.

Asked what he hopes a congressional delegation of six members does when it travels to Cuba this weekend, Rubio stressed the importance of U.S. politicians pushing for more freedoms for Cubans.

"I hope they'll raise the issue of human rights and political change," he said. "The history of economic openings leading to political change is not very good. And as we've seen in China, Vietnam Burma -- there is no modern example of a country that's changed democratically because of an economic opening with the United States as long as that tyranny is reluctant. And the Cuban tyranny is reluctant."

As for whether he plans to run for president in 2016, Rubio said: "I haven't made a decision today. Not yet, guys."

Diaz-Balart: Cuba already backsliding, re-arrested 2 of 53 political prisoners released in Obama deal


When President Obama and Raul Castro announced an effort to normalize ties between the United States and Cuba, the regime announced it would release 53 political prisoners.

But it never said it wouldn't re-arrest any of them.

And so, according to Hablemos Press via Capitol Hill Cubans, Rolando Reyes Rabanal and Luis Enrique Labrador are once again behind bars. And Cuba critics like Miami Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart are as outraged as they are not surprised. Here's the Republican's statement, which goes on to note the two were arrested along with another activist, Miguel Daniel Borroto Vazquez:

"According to reports, Cuban activists Rolando Reyes Rabanal and Luis Enrique Labrador, who are on the President's list of 53 political prisoners, were once again arrested while attempting to join a pro-democracy meeting of the Movement for a New Republic. Another opposition activist who was not on the list, Miguel Daniel Borroto Vazquez, was beaten, arrested, and ultimately imprisoned in El Vivac detention center.

“The President's flawed and arbitrary list of 53 political prisoners falls far short of a condition that should be non-negotiable: the permanent release of ALL political prisoners. When the Castro regime re-arrests political prisoners after the President "negotiated" their release, it makes a mockery of the entire bad deal. But, as the administration has conceded several times, the President is too invested in his policy of appeasement to change course over the regime's human rights abuses. It remains an utter disgrace that a decent human rights record, and Cuban prisons emptied of innocent men and women, was not part of the President's deal.”

January 15, 2015

Marco Rubio calls eased restrictions 'windfall' for Cuba


Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio swiftly hammered the Obama administration's announcement Thursday that travel and trade restrictions toward Cuba will be loosened beginning Friday:

"This is a windfall for the Castro regime that will be used to fund its repression against Cubans, as well as its activities against U.S. national interests in Latin America and beyond. Given existing U.S. laws about our Cuba policy, this slew of regulations leave at least one major question President Obama and his administration have failed to answer so far: what legal authority does he have to enrich the Castro regime in these ways?   

“Yesterday I requested answers from Secretary Lew on how this new Cuba policy would be implemented without violating the letter and spirit of several U.S. laws, and without increasing the moral and financial risk to the American taxpayer and financial system of doing business through Cuba’s government-controlled financial system. While those questions remain unanswered, one thing that’s become even more crystal clear today is that this one-sided deal is enriching a tyrant and his regime at the expense of U.S. national interests and the Cuban people."

Looser Cuba travel, trade restrictions to take effect Friday


New rules that will make it easier to travel to Cuba - and bring back Cuban cigars - will go into effect Friday, less than a month after President Barack Obama announced plans to restore long-severed diplomatic ties with the communist-led island.

The new Treasury and Commerce Department regulations -- to be published Friday in the Federal Register -- include making it easier to travel to Cuba and raising the limits on how much money can be sent to Cuba.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called the changes a “significant step forward” in carrying out Obama’s new policy.

“These changes will immediately enable the American people to provide more resources to empower the Cuban population to become less dependent upon the state-driven economy, and help facilitate our growing relationship with the Cuban people,” Earnest said in a statement.

The new regulations are here and here.

The changes will mean that travelers who meet certain categories will no longer need to apply for a license to travel to Cuba. The categories include family visits, official U.S. or foreign governments, journalistic, professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; private foundations or research or educational institutes; export, import, or transmission of information.

More here.

January 14, 2015

Cuban-American commissioner from Miami-Dade calls for ending immigration privileges for Cubans


A Miami-Dade County politician has quietly taken on the fight against a federal law — once seen as untouchable — that gives Cubans special immigration privileges.

County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro filed legislation urging Congress to do away with the preference provided to Cuban migrants under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cubans to apply for residency 366 days after their arrival in the U.S. — a perk afforded no other foreigners. The commission is scheduled to vote on the proposal next Wednesday. Six of its 13 members, including Barreiro, are Cuban-American.

Local government has no power to overturn U.S. law. But last month’s announcement by President Barack Obama that he would seek to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations has renewed interest on U.S. policy toward the island — and raised questions as to whether the CAA, designed to help Cubans fleeing political persecution, would still make sense under closer diplomatic ties. Changes to the CAA would require congressional action.

Barreiro, 49, said in a telephone interview from Mexico on Wednesday that though his own family has benefited from the law -- he is the U.S.-born son of Cuban immigrants -- it's time for it to expire.

"This thing, that you come over and you're a resident in a year and a day and after that you go back to Cuba -- it's ridiculous," he said. "It's helping the regime."

He conceded his proposal could be contentious, given that many Cuban migrants rely on the CAA to find a better life away from the island's communist regime. But Barreiro said those people would still be able to apply for political asylum like other foreigners.

Barreiro is registered Republican, though his commission seat is nonpartisan. His District 5 includes downtown, South Beach, Little Havana and portions of the Miami River.

Critics have long noted that Cubans are the only immigrants who are not sent back to their country when they reach the U.S. illegally — special treatment that migrants from Haiti and elsewhere from the Caribbean do not receive when they arrive on battered rafts to Florida’s shores. Separate from the CAA, a policy known as “wet-foot, dry-foot” allows Cuban rafters to stay if they reach U.S. soil, though they’re deported if interdicted at sea.

Continue reading "Cuban-American commissioner from Miami-Dade calls for ending immigration privileges for Cubans" »

January 13, 2015

Another week, another letter from Marco Rubio to President Obama about Cuba


The U.S. says Cuba has released 53 political prisoners as part of its deal to start normalizing diplomatic relations.

But Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who is mulling a presidential run that would presumably play up his interest in foreign policy, wants President Barack Obama's administration to provide more detail about how those prisoners were chosen.

Rubio sent Obama a letter Tuesday posing a series of questions that suggest the Cuban government may have given up relatively little in the arrangement. Some of the prisoners, Rubio notes, have been released on probation or with other conditions infringing on their freedom. 

"Cuban activists report that many of the people on the list had already been released months prior to your announcement on December 17, in one case, more than a year earlier," the senator wrote. "Others had already served the bulk of their sentences and were already due to be released. One political prisoner was released and then subsequently re-arrested and beaten and then released again.

"Human rights groups also report that many of those released have been done so conditionally with charges still pending against them, released on probation, released with the threat of being imprisoned again if they resume their efforts in support of freedom for the Cuban people, or released with prohibitions on being able to leave the country."

Last week, Rubio wrote the president urging him to call off talks in Havana later this month until the prisoners were released.

The letters are aimed more at Rubio's South Florida constituency of hardline supporters of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba -- and to the public at large taking a close look at the still-young deal -- rather than just at the president himself. Rubio's office has circulated them to reporters in news releases.

But it's pressure from members of Congress -- though not always from presidential hopefuls -- that sometimes forces government agencies to release information. On Monday, for example, the names of the 53 prisoners surfaced after a list was provided to congressional leaders. It wasn't until later that an administration spokeswoman confirmed the information.

January 09, 2015

Cuban Americans in Congress ask John Kerry to stop U.S. 'concessions' to Cuba


Six Cuban-American members of Congress asked U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday to reconsider normalization talks with Cuba.

"We agree in the importance of advocating on behalf of U.S. national security interests, human rights, and basic freedoms for the Cuban people," the letter says.

"However, mere lip service is inadequate. As such, we urge you to cease unilateral concessions that reward and embolden a brutal dictatorship in the midst of a brutal crackdown. Canceling future talks, and ending unilateral concessions, would signal that the Administration's position on human rights is not just empty rhetoric and broken promises, but is actually supported by concrete actions."

The letter is signed by three Miami Republicans, Reps. Carlos CurbeloMario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and by Reps. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) and Albio Sires (D-N.J.) and Sen. Ted Cruz, D-Texas.

The missing Cuban American is one of Cruz's potential presidential rivals, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who wrote a letter of his own earlier this week to President Barack Obama urging him not to hold talks with Cuba without more information on 53 political prisoners the island's communist regime was supposed to release. Some of the prisoners were reportedly freed Thursday.

The Obama administration has given little attention to Cuban Americans who have loudly criticized the president's rapprochment with Cuba. Talks between the two countries are scheduled to take place in Havana on Jan. 21-22.