June 09, 2017

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


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

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

The Week That Was in Latin America Photo Gallery(8)
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

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

Havana didn't like Trump's message on Cuban independence day

Cuba May Day
via @ngameztorres

Havana has reacted strongly to a statement issued by President Donald Trump to the Cuban people over the weekend to mark the 115th anniversary of the birth of the Republic of Cuba.

A statement read on Cuban state television on Saturday described Trump’s message as “controversial” and “ridiculous.”

“...the Miami Herald on Saturday published a controversial and ridiculous message from the ill-advised U.S. President Donald Trump to the people of Cuba about May 20, a date that the United States considers as the emergence of the Republic of Cuba, when we actually know that what was born that day was a Yankee neo-colony, which lived until on January 1, 1959,” says the statement, referencing the date when Fidel Castro seized control of the island.

The statement, which was also published on the Cuban TV website, is signed only as “Official Note” and it is unclear whether it corresponds to a change of position by the Cuban government, which had been careful in its statements on the new U.S. president, who has ordered a review of Cuba policy.

On several occasions, the Cuban government has offered to maintain a dialogue with the United States.

Official notes from Havana are usually signed by “the Revolutionary Government” or the governmental entity issuing it. Cuban Television responds directly to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, a conservative bastion within the government of Raúl Castro.

More here.

May 18, 2017

White House: No imminent Cuba policy announcement

via @ngameztorres

After much anticipation that an announcement on Cuba policy changes would be made no later than Saturday, President Donald Trump — in the midst of various political crises — has not decided what to do, officials said.

The White House had considered holding an event May 20 to commemorate the 115th anniversary of the birth of the Cuban Republic, but Trump will begin an international trip on Friday and the review of the policy toward the island has not concluded, a spokeswoman told el Nuevo Herald.

“The issue of Cuba is extremely complex, and the president does not want to rush it,” said the spokeswoman. “Besides, he won’t be here on May 20.”

The Trump administration is carrying out a review of Cuba policy that involves several federal agencies and is being coordinated by the National Security Council.

Rumors of an imminent announcement circulated around Capitol Hill and even crossed the Florida Straits to the island, although Havana seems less anxious than before, when Trump’s presidential victory and strong statements raised questions about the so-called “thaw” in diplomatic relations initiated by former President Barack Obama in 2014. 

“Havana is confident that not much will happen,” said a businessman close to the Cuban government.

More here.

Photo credit: Associated Press

May 12, 2017

Coast Guard didn't pick up any Cuban rafters last month

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via @ngameztorres

For decades, dramatic images of Cubans trying to reach the United States on decrepit boats made of all kinds of materials shocked many within the South Florida community. On the island, families waited desperately for news on whether loved ones had made it to shore.

No more.

In April, the Coast Guard did not intercept a single vessel ferrying Cuban migrants — the first time in seven years this has occurred.

“April was the first month in seven years where we didn’t have one Cuban migrant, not one,” Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard told The Wall Street Journal. “On a typical day at this time last year, we would probably pick up anywhere from 50 to 150 Cuban migrants.”

The remarkable change is due to a drastic measure taken during the last days of the Obama administration in negotiation with the Cuban government: the elimination of an immigration policy for Cubans known as “wet foot, dry foot.”

More here.

Photo credit: Lynne Sladky, Associated Press

April 05, 2017

Behind the scenes, Rubio and others try to push Trump White House on Cuba

via @ngameztorres

Two months after the Trump administration announced a total review of U.S. policy toward Cuba, several controversial proposals are being circulated at the White House with no clear front-runner on the issue.

But Sen. Marco Rubio says he has spoken with President Donald Trump three times about Cuba.

“We’ve been walking through all these issues with the president and his team, figuring out the right steps to take and when,” Rubio told el Nuevo Herald.

“I am confident that President Trump will treat Cuba like the dictatorship it is and that our policy going forward will reflect the fact that it is not in the national interest of the United States for us to be doing business with the Cuban military,” he added.

The Miami Republican of Cuban descent declined to say whether the president had made any commitments to him on Cuba policies. But a Rubio spokesman told el Nuevo Herald that the senator and his staff “have been working behind the scenes” on Cuba policy.

The Cuban government has taken notice of Rubio's rising voice in U.S. policy toward Latin America, and the state-run Granma newspaper recently criticized his efforts to have the Organization of American States condemn Venezuela's human rights record.

But the Granma article carefully avoided insulting Trump. And the Raúl Castro government, in a rare show of restraint, has said little about the Trump administration as it waits for the ongoing review of overall U.S. policies toward the island.

Spokespersons for the White House and the State Department have said that the National Security Council (NSC) has the lead in the multi-agency review. Several knowledgeable sources have said that Jill St. John, a low-level NSC staffer, is coordinating the work. The White House did not immediately reply to el Nuevo Herald questions about St. John.

More here.

Photo credit: Rainier Ehrhardt, Associated Press