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

IMG_11balseros630_2_1_A167SIN4_L169137789 (2)
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

March 31, 2017

Rubio: I've spoken to Trump three times about Cuba


Sen. Marco Rubio has kept mostly tight-lipped about what he's discussed with President Donald Trump on the occasions the two Republicans have met -- including over dinner with their wives at the White House.

But Rubio disclosed in a Spanish-language interview this week that he's used those conversations with Trump to bring up Cuba.

"I've spoken to the president of the United States personally on three occasions," Rubio told Mega TV host Oscar Haza after Haza asked about the future of U.S.-Cuba policy. "I think without a doubt there will be changes in U.S.-Cuba policy."

Rubio said he and his staff are dealing "very closely" with the White House on the issue, which he expects Trump to address "strategically."

"If the Cuban government is going to behave like a dictatorship, well, then we're going to deal with them like a dictatorship," Rubio said, without going into specifics. "We're not going to pretend it's changing. There haven't been any changes -- on the contrary, we've seen more repression." 

The topic of Cuba came up last week during White House health care discussions with Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.

Photo credit: Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg

March 23, 2017

Scramble for healthcare votes suddenly puts Cuba policy in play

FAZ22 ForunSeguridad News rk (1)
@PatriciaMazzei @ngameztorres

The showdown in Congress over House Republicans’ healthcare bill might have nothing to do with Raúl Castro — if it weren’t for Miami.

Thursday’s planned vote on the American Health Care Act is so razor tight that House GOP leaders and the White House are leaning hard on every single shaky Republican for their support. One of them: Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, whose foremost want is to overturn the Obama administration’s Cuba opening — and who has recently taken it upon himself to outline a possible Cuba policy for the Trump administration.

Perhaps Diaz-Balart and the White House would engage in a little old-fashioned horse trading — a “Yes” vote on healthcare for swift action on Cuba?

The New York Times reported Wednesday that Diaz-Balart wanted assurances from White House officials that President Donald Trump would keep his campaign promise to take a harder Cuba line. There was no explicit discussion about trading a healthcare vote for a Cuba promise, The Times said after initially reporting otherwise.

“I wish that they would’ve given me a commitment on something, but that is just made up,” Diaz-Balart told McClatchy, the Miami Herald’s parent company, on Wednesday.

He added that he’s still undecided on the healthcare bill, mostly based on concerns about insurance coverage and premium costs for older Americans.

“I am very concerned that particularly that population is not being dealt with yet in a way that is giving me a lot of comfort,” he said.

Politically, he noted, it’s better not to be a hard “Yes” or “No”: “Once I do that, then I’m out of the loop.”

More here.

Photo credit: Roberto Koltun, el Nuevo Herald

March 22, 2017

White House angles for Diaz-Balart's vote on health care

FAZ22 ForunSeguridad News rk

In a story Wednesday about the White House leaning on House Republicans to back the GOP healthcare bill, The New York Times reported that Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart used the hot political moment to reiterate that President Donald Trump promised to undo the Obama administration's Cuba policy.

For other House members, the health bill has been an opportunity to deal. As part of the discussions, Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, Republican of Florida, made it clear to White House officials that he wanted assurances that the president would hold to his pledge to consider reversing President Barack Obama’s opening with Cuba, the White House official said. Mr. Diaz-Balart backed the measure in the Budget Committee last week, although the official said there had been no explicit discussion of trading his vote for a promise on Cuba.

(An earlier version of the story incorrectly said Trump had pledged to Diaz-Balart he'd reverse the Obama policy in return for his vote.)

Diaz-Balart has made no secret that he's brought up Cuba every time he's had a chance to speak to top White House personnel. He was particularly friendly during the transition with Vice President Mike Pence. But a source told the Miami Herald on Wednesday that the Trump administration has yet to make any assurances or commitments on Cuba.

Diaz-Balart's spokeswoman, Katrina Valdés, said in an email Wednesday to the Herald and the Tampa Bay Times that, on health care, the congressman "is still reviewing the recent changes to the bill and continues to negotiate with House Leadership about multiple aspects of the bill, including how the legislation handles older, low income constituents."

A vote is planned for Thursday.

--with Alex Leary

Photo credit: Roberto Koltun, el Nuevo Herald