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

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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

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@PatriciaMazzei

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
@PatriciaMazzei

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

March 21, 2017

Cubans favor better U.S. relations, poll finds

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From the Associated Press:

WASHINGTON -- A rare poll of Cuban public opinion has found that most of the island's citizens approve of normal relations with the United States and large majorities want more tourists to visit and the expansion of private business ownership.

In a poll of 840 people taken in Cuba late last year by the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, 55 percent said that normal relations with the U.S. would be mostly good for the country.

"I'd love for the two peoples to be even closer," Rebecca Tamayo, an 80-year-old retired museum worker, said Monday in Havana. "If there were better relations, more products would be entering the country. There'd be more opportunity to buy things."

Among Cubans aged 18-29, approval of closer relations with the U.S. rose to 70 percent. An overwhelming eight of 10 respondents said they believed tourism to Cuba should be expanded.

President Donald Trump has pledged to reverse former President Barack Obama's 2 1/2-year-old opening with Cuba, which restored full diplomatic relations and allowed a dramatic expansion of U.S. travel to the island. Trump has said little about the matter since taking office, but his administration says it is conducting a full review of Cuba policy with an eye toward possible changes.

More here.

Photo credit: Desmond Boylan, AP file

March 10, 2017

A likely candidate for Florida governor suggested invading Cuba. He says he was just trying to make a point

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@PatriciaMazzei

The panel of three local mayors discussing how the United States should approach doing business with Cuba was going predictably Friday until Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a likely Democratic candidate for Florida governor, brought up a word that, once upon a time in Miami, might have caused a political maelstrom: invasion.

“Why aren’t we discussing the invasion of the island?” Levine said.

He wasn’t endorsing the idea of a military incursion. A few moments earlier, Levine had argued that the best way to help Cubans themselves was to engage in open commerce with the island.

But he had no support for the expanded-business position from his colleagues, Coral Gables Mayor Jim Cason and Doral Mayor J.C. Bermudez. Cason, a Republican former head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, had in fact espoused the opposite view, questioning the ethics of any business that would enrich the pockets of the Cuban military.

So Levine made his provocative remark, predicting that a U.S.-led military operation “would probably take 24 hours at best.”

A few people in the crowd chuckled. Neither Bermudez nor Cason took him seriously. Levine later told the Miami Herald he’d been trying to highlight — perhaps inartfully — that opponents of the Obama administration’s Cuba opening, like Cason, couldn’t offer any better solutions.

The surprising exchange reflected how much the conversation on Cuba has changed in Miami. The suggestion that American troops might land on Cuban shores — a failed strategy under former President John F. Kennedy — is now a laugh line. The question of what to do instead, however, remains difficult for local politicians to answer.

More here.

Photo credit: Emily Michot, Miami Herald staff

February 16, 2017

Trump says his Cuba views are 'very similar' to Rubio's

RUBIO Y TRUMP
via @ngameztorres

President Donald Trump said during a press conference Thursday that he shares Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s views on Cuba.

“We had dinner with Senator Rubio and his wife, who was by the way, lovely, and we had a very good discussion about Cuba, because we have very similar views on Cuba,” Trump told journalists.

“Cuba has been very good to me, in the Florida elections, you know, the Cuban people, Americans,” he added in reference to the support of Cuban American voters.

Former rival Rubio and his wife had dinner with Trump and First Lady Melania on Wednesday night, after the president received Lilian Tintori, the wife of the Venezuelan political prisoner Leopoldo López in the White House. A smiling Rubio posed for a photo with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Tintori.

The comment suggests a possible change in Cuba policy since Rubio was one of the staunchest critics of former President Barack Obama’s engagement with Cuba, especially in the area of human rights.

More here.

Photo credit: Rainier Ehrhardt, Associated Press

January 26, 2017

Raúl Castro: I want 'respectful dialogue' with Trump

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via @HeraldMimi

Making his first foreign trip since his brother Fidel’s death, Raúl Castro told leaders at the V Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States that Cuba wants to continue its rapprochement with the United States and have a dialogue with the Trump administration.

“I want to express the willingness of Cuba to continue negotiating on pending bilateral matters with the United States on the basis of equality, reciprocity and respect for the sovereignty and independence of our country and to pursue a respectful dialogue and cooperation on topics of common interest with the new government of President Donald Trump,” Castro said during a speech at the CELAC summit being held in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, and attended by 10 heads of state and 33 foreign ministers from the region.

Trump has made various pronouncements on U.S. relations with Cuba, ranging from seeking a better deal in negotiations with Havana to scrapping the Obama administration’s opening unless Cuba makes political concessions, including religious and political freedom for the Cuban people. His nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has said the Trump administration plans to review all former president Barack Obama’s executive orders underlying the rapprochement with Cuba.

“Cuba and the United States can cooperate and live together in a civilized way, respecting our differences and promoting that which benefits both countries and peoples,” Castro said, “but one shouldn’t wait for Cuba to undertake inherent concessions to its sovereignty and independence.”

More here.

Photo credit: Associated Press

Port Everglades calls off Cuba agreement after governor threatens funding cut

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@AmySherman1 @HeraldMimi @PatriciaMazzei

After Gov. Rick Scott threatened to financially cut off Florida ports that do business with Cuba, a Broward County commissioner said Thursday that Port Everglades has canceled plans to sign an agreement with Cuba.

Commissioner Chip LaMarca told the Miami Herald on Thursday morning, minutes after speaking with Port director Steve Cernak, that Cernak told him the memorandum of understanding with Cuba won’t be signed. However, LaMarca said that port officials will still hold their scheduled meeting with the Cuba delegation at the port in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday.

“The port director was a little upset way things transpired, nevertheless he understood the governor’s position,” LaMarca said. “With respect to the MOU it was canceled yesteray afternoon once the governor’s position was made. They are going to still have meeting.”

Port Everglades sent a brief email to the media Thursday morning:

“The National Port Administration of Cuba has indicated to Port Everglades administration that there is no need for a memorandum of understanding at this time. However, today’s business meeting and related activities will continue as planned.”

More here.

Photo credit: Associated Press