April 14, 2016

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



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

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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

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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.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine would welcome the Cuban consulate


Gustavo Machín, deputy director of North American affairs (left) meets with Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine, right, at the Cuban Foreign Relations Ministry on Wednesday.

Miami refuses to welcome a Cuban consulate into its city because its mayor calls it a political flashpoint and a security risk. Cuba and the U.S. hesitate to open one in Tampa because it’s too far away from most people who would need consular services.

A possible solution to the diplomatic stalemate: Bring the consulate to Miami Beach.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Commissioner Ricky Arriola told the Cuban government in a private meeting Wednesday in Havana that, unlike their Miami counterparts, they’d welcome Cuban diplomats in their city.

“It belongs in Miami-Dade County,” Arriola told the Miami Herald. “It needs to go where they’re going to serve the greatest number of its people. Miami-Dade has by far the greatest number of Cubans in the country. The demand is going to be very high.”

Keep reading Patricia Mazzei's story here.

March 23, 2016

Obama in Cuba - more popular than Castro?


via @lesleyclark

HAVANA -- President Barack Obama’s decision to restore ties with Cuba may have given him a revered spot in the heart of many Cubans.

Crowds lined the roads here to catch a glimpse of the presidential motorcade: en route to a baseball game between U.S. and Cuban teams, thousands spilled into the streets and crowded onto balconies.

The American flag, once a sign of hostility, did fly beside the Cuban colors from the antennas of the vintage American automobiles that ferried visitors around the city. And an entrepreneur pitched a refrigerator magnet with Obama holding a cigar under his nose.

But they were still outnumbered by trinkets with images of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. And in a country accustomed to disappointment and ruled by the same family since 1959, there were few overt displays of support for the American president, even as he spent the better part of three days touring Havana’s sights, eating its food and urging its people to embrace democracy.

Cubans cheered his speech in the privacy of their homes - the government did not erect large screen monitors in public as with other events. “Who would have thought we’d see this,” said Jesus Magán as he watched at home. ““I mean, we were trained to fight against the Americans!”

More here.

Photo credit: @PatriciaMazzei in Havana

Cuban dissidents met with Obama to air grievances

President Barack Obama granted outspoken political dissidents of the Cuban government the highest level of recognition they’ve ever received in their own country, meeting privately with them Tuesday against the wishes of the Castro regime.

Obama sat down with 13 dissidents and political activists behind closed doors at the U.S. embassy for more than an hour and a half, several of the attendees said, even though the gathering had been scheduled to last only a half-hour. The president greeted each person around the conference table by name, taking notes as they aired grievances about Raúl Castro’s rule — and, in some cases, about Obama’s U.S.-Cuba policy

The White House insisted the meeting with the dissidents was never in question. But when Secretary of State John Kerry failed to travel to Cuba a couple of weeks ahead of the president, as had been expected, Castro opponents feared an attempt was under way by the Cuban government to dictate who could meet Obama.

After the regime detained more than 50 activists Sunday — including two invited to Obama’s meeting — dissidents also worried government authorities might keep them from showing up Tuesday.

Full story here.

March 22, 2016

U.S. beat Cuba as Obama and Castro watched

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President Barack Obama capped an historic visit to Cuba on Tuesday by indulging in sports diplomacy —catching a few innings of a baseball game in a raucous stadium, Cuba’s president at his side.

Perched behind home plate, the American president who has sought to open Cuba to the United States, chatted with Raul Castro as they cheered several innings of the first exhibition game between a U.S. and a Cuban team since 1999.

“We share a national pastime — la pelota,” Obama said hours earlier in a speech to Cuban people and broadcast across the island. He called the sport one of many “common passions” that Americans and Cubans shared, even as their governments became adversaries.

And he noted that U.S. and Cuban players would later compete on the same Havana baseball field where baseball legend Jackie Robinson — who broke baseball’s racial barrier — played before he made his Major League debut.


Read more from Lesley Clark here.