March 22, 2016

What a Havana family saw as it watched President Obama on TV

Cuba watch

María Lastres sat nervously, bent over, her leg bouncing. Her husband, Jesús Magán, could hardly keep still. President Barack Obama was on TV, just a few miles from their modest Havana apartment, speaking truths to the Cuban government — on Cuban soil.

They broke their rapt attention only to yelp, again and again, Cubans’ favorite interjection — “¡Ñó!” — and to spontaneously applaud in unadultered astonishment.

“Who would have thought we’d see this,” Magán said, agape. “I mean, we were trained to fight against the Americans!”

Cubans intent on listening to every word Obama uttered on the island had little choice but to tune in from home Tuesday to catch his landmark speech. The government didn’t put up large screens outside, as it does for other big events like the soccer World Cup, and Havana offers few places — most of them for foreign tourists — to watch television in public.

Keep reading Patricia Mazzei's story here.

Raúl Castro's false claim about lack of political prisoners in Cuba

Cuba President Raúl Castro criticized the United States’ human rights record — and defended his own — in a joint press conference with President Barack Obama in Havana.

At the first official meeting between leaders of the two countries in 50 years, Castro dinged the United States on the lack of universal access to health care, free education and equal pay before he fended off a CNN reporter’s question about political prisoners on the island.

"President Castro, my father is Cuban. He left for the United States when he was young. Do you see a new and democratic direction for your country? And why (do) you have Cuban political prisoners? And why don’t you release them?" asked CNN’s Jim Acosta. (He then asked if Castro prefers Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.)

"Give me a list of the political prisoners and I will release them immediately," Castrosaid, according to the White House translation of his remarks. "Just mention a list. What political prisoners? Give me a name or names. After this meeting is over, you can give me a list of political prisoners. And if we have those political prisoners, they will be released before tonight ends."

A Miami Herald translation put his response in slightly different words, though Castro’s message is not in dispute: "Give me the list now of political prisoners to release. If there are political prisoners, they’ll be free before nightfall."

PolitiFact Global News Service thought we’d oblige -- keep reading here to see what fact-checker Linda Qiu found.

March 19, 2016

Marco Rubio calls Obama Cuba trip 'disgraceful'

via @learyreports

Marco Rubio offers an extended criticism of President Obama's trip to Cuba, which begins Sunday.

“On Sunday, President Obama will touch down in Cuba for what promises to be one of the most disgraceful trips ever taken by a U.S. president anywhere in the world. This is an Obama presidential trip whose ultimate results will be giving away legitimacy and money to an anti-American regime that actively undermines our national security interests and acts against our values every single day. President Obama’s entourage will sleep in hotels controlled by the Cuban military that were confiscated by the regime and are among the $7 billion in unpaid legal claims owed to American property owners. When President Obama arrives in Havana on Sunday, he will visit Catholic Church sights and church officials, yet he’s inexplicably expected to skip St. Rita Church, where the Ladies In White have shed much blood and received routine beatings at the hands of the Castro regime for simply demanding their loved ones’ freedom.

Continue reading "Marco Rubio calls Obama Cuba trip 'disgraceful'" »

March 18, 2016

South Florida Republicans break with GOP in deportation vote


Only five Republican lawmakers stood up to their party leader in voting against allowing House Speaker Paul Ryan to file an amicus brief opposing President Barack Obama's decision to withhold deportation for more than 5 million undocumented immigrants.

All three Cuban-American representatives from South Florida -- Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Marco Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo -- were among the five Republicans who voted against a resolution that the House passed Thursday almost entirely along party lines.

The Supreme Court next month will hear a case brought by Texas, joined by Florida and 24 other states, arguing that Obama's bid to shield about 5.2 million illegal aliens from deportation imposes unaffordable health-care, education, law-enforcement and other costs on them.

Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who replaced Ohioan John Boehner as speaker in October, acknowledged that House intervention in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court was unprecedented, but he insisted it was necessary to prevent executive overreach by Obama.

With no Democrats voting for the bill, Ryan and other Republicans said Obama's executive orders dating to 2012 amount to the president legislating immigration reform without going through Congress.

"I recognize that this is a very extraordinary step," Ryan said on the House floor. "I feel it is very necessary, though. In fact, I believe this is vital."

In a joint statement Friday, Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart said that although individual members of Congress have the right to file briefs supporting court cases, the House as a whole should not do so.

"All amicus briefs should carry the same weight, and beginning this pattern may signal to the Supreme Court that Congress is prioritizing certain cases over others," the two Miami Republicans said.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a first-term Republican from Kendall, went further. He accused Republicans of playing politics with the important issue of immigration.

"For two long, both parties have preferred to score petty political points using the immigration issue rather than passing meaningful reform to secure the border, reform our visa system and find a fair solution for the undocumented," Curbelo said.

"The surest and most constitutionally solvent way to end the president's executive overreach is to pass meaningful immigration reform, not by employing empty tactics that ignore the root cause of the problem," he said.

The two other Republicans who voted against the House resolution were Reps. Richard Hanna of New York and Robert Dold of Illinois. Rep. Alex Mooney, a West Virginia Republican and one of five other Cuban-Americans in Congress, voted for the measure, which passed by a 234-186 margin.

Among Florida's 24 other U.S. House members, 22 voted along party lines, with Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel and Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan failing to vote.

Nine other Florida Democrats voted against the measure, among them Reps. Frederica Wilson of Miami Gardens and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, who is chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

Two lower courts have ruled in favor of the states, most recently the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals based in New Orleans.

With only eight justices on the Supreme Court since Justice Antonin Scalia's death last month, a 4-4 decision after the scheduled April 18 arguments would uphold the lower courts' rulings and overturn Obama's executive orders protecting millions of undocumented parents and their children from deportation.

Obama on Wednesday chose Merrick Garland, a former federal prosecutor and current judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, to replace Scalia on the high court, but Senate Republican leaders are refusing to take a vote or even hold hearings on the nomination, saying Obama has only 10 months left in office.

Immigration has become perhaps the most divisive issue in the presidential campaign, with Republican front-runner Donald Trump vowing to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat of Puerto Rican descent, ridiculed Republican lawmakers, many of whom he said have disingenuously tried to distance themselves from Trump's hardline stance on immigration.

"They keep saying, 'Well, Trump doesn't represent us, he doesn't (represent) our views, he doesn't represent our values,' and now they want to know where Trump gets all of his anti-immigrant, xenophobic views from," Gutierrez told reporters. "Try the House of Republicans."

In a speech Friday on the House floor, Gutierrez accused his Republican colleagues of "stoking anti-immigrant fears and mass-deportation fantasies."

"The vote is a political stunt disguised as a legal brief because the Republican majority sees a crass political opportunity to stand with the anti-immigration wing of their party," he said.  

The United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and 60 individual business leaders, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, filed an amicus brief supporting Obama last week.

Before the vote Thursday, Democratic Rep. Linda Sanchez, head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said "the Latino community is being used for political purposes."

Sanchez added: "We are being demonized, we are being marginalized, and we see a frightening level of hateful rhetoric and vile hate speech aimed at our community, and nobody is standing up within the Republican Party to say that this is unacceptable."

America's Voice, a pro-immigration advocacy group, said the vote Thursday was the eighth "anti-immigration" vote taken by Republicans in the current session of Congress.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and 223 other Democrats filed an amicus brief backing Obama earlier this month, but there was no vote on the brief and it represents them as individuals.

In still another amicus brief, almost 120 cities and counties across the United States on March 8 expressed support for Obama, among them Pembroke Pines, Tampa and Sunrise.


March 15, 2016

Miami Beach mayor to travel to Cuba next week

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In a historic visit, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine plans to travel to Cuba in his official capacity next week, becoming the first head of a Miami-Dade County city to go to the island since the 1959 revolution.

Levine will fly to Cuba to help lead a graduate seminar for Tufts University, which he said asked him to join about a dozen students of international affairs. The dates, set some time ago, happened to coincide with President Barack Obama’s trip to the island, the first time a U.S. president will step on Cuban soil in nearly 90 years.

“I think I’m the first mayor from Miami-Dade County to go,” Levine told the Miami Herald on Tuesday, in a boast that might have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago. “I believe in the Cuban people in Cuba as well as the Cuban people in Miami. And I believe that we need to engage people in Cuba, and we need to do it through all types of interaction, and we need to give them hope. We need to give them aspiration.

“Obviously, government-to-government it’s been very challenging over the past 60 years, but I think if you empower the people, the people will be able to bring about the changes that they would like to see, whether it’s human rights and, of course, all types of freedoms.”

Part of what Levine wants to find out is how Havana might shape up as a tourism destination in competition with Miami Beach.

“Being a proactive mayor doesn’t mean putting your head in the sand and thinking, somehow, that this previous tourist destination of Cuba is not going to somehow come alive again,” he said. “It’s incumbent on someone like myself, as a mayor, to go down there to engage, and to understand what we may be in store for in the future as it pertains to our core industry.”

More here.

March 09, 2016

Bernie Sanders fuzzy on U.S.-Cuba policy details

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Bernie Sanders knows he wants the United States to treat Cuba like any other country when it comes to diplomacy.

“That is good for the people of Cuba,” he said Wednesday in a brief interview with the Miami Herald. “That is good for the people of the United States.”

What he doesn’t know is what that relationship would look like in practice.

Asked about three specific Cuba policies — the Cuban Adjustment Act; wet-foot, dry-foot, and the immigration status of Cuban nationals convicted of state and federal crimes — Sanders said he didn’t know enough about them to opine.

“I just don’t know all of the details about that,” he said.

The Cuban Adjustment Act allows Cubans to apply for U.S. residency after a year and a day in the U.S. Wet-foot, dry-foot allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to remain in the country. The U.S. doesn’t deport Cubans felons — some 28,400 of them — who instead live free in the country in spite of their immigration removal orders.

Sanders is not the first presidential candidate this election cycle to stumble on Cuba policy in South Florida. Republican Ben Carson struggled to respond last November to similar questions posed by the Herald. Like Sanders, he acknowledged needing more information. Carson has since left the race.

More here.

Photo credit: Pedro Portal, el Nuevo Herald

Facebook data shows what Floridians are talking about ahead of Miami Democratic debate

Conversation FLORIDA

It may come as no surprise, but Floridians -- at least the ones posting about politics on Facebook -- care a lot about Cuba and immigration.

Those are the top issues Floridians are talking about on the social-media site ahead of Wednesday's Democratic debate in Miami, according to data Facebook shared with the Miami Herald.

The other three leading topics of conversation? The size of government, government ethics, and homeland security and terrorism. Compare that to the chief issues nationally: religion, the economy, immigration, racial issues and taxes.

Facebook also compiled data on which candidates Facebookers were discussing, and how many "interactions" those candidates generated. Here, Florida mirrored the nation.

Between the Democrats, Hillary Clinton leads Bernie Sanders in Facebook interactions. The Republican lineup, from most to least discussed: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich.

UPDATED Miami congressman snubbed from White House meeting on Cuba


U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo wanted in on the White House's upcoming Miami meeting with Cuban-American community leaders. 

No such luck.

Curbelo says he asked to attend Friday's get-together with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. But he was told the meeting will be "private."

"This White House works very hard at excluding Cuban-American representatives -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- from any meetings or discussions having to do with U.S.-Cuba policy," Curbelo said in a statement to the Miami Herald. "I've worked with the Administration on higher education reform, climate change, immigration, and other issues. However, on Cuba they shut out anyone who doesn't fully agree with them -- even those who represent our country's Cuban-American community. It doesn't make sense, and quite frankly, it seems petty."

Pete Boogaard, assistant press secretary for the National Security Council, said Rhodes and other senior administration officials have met "directly with members of Congress from both sides of the aisle."

"We will continue to make outreach to Congress a focus of our engagement, but during the limited time Mr. Rhodes has in Miami, he will meet with human rights and civil society advocates, faith leaders, young emerging leaders, and representatives from the private sector."

Former U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, the Democrat who lost to Curbelo in 2014 and hopes to challenge him again later this year, issued a campaign statement deriding Curbelo's complaint as "priceless."

"The person who has opposed every single one of this administration's initiatives on Cuba -- from family travel to remittances to normalization of migratory policy -- now wants a photo op. The Obama administration has been in contact with Cubans both on the island and in Miami, as well as with leaders of the civic, business, art and political communities. If there is someone who is out of touch with the people in Cuba and, in particular, South Florida, it is Mr. Curbelo."

Curbelo was snubbed by the White House last year: It denied him an Air Force One seat to a President Barack Obama town hall on immigration at Florida International University, in Curbelo's congressional district. The White House later made nice with Curbelo, and he got to fly with the president a few months later on a trip to the Florida Everglades.

Miami Dade College announced Wednesday that, as part of his visit, Rhodes will attend a town meeting with young Cuban Americans at downtown Miami's Wolfson Campus. The event is co-sponsored by Roots of Hope, a nonprofit network of Cuban-American college students and professionals. Rhodes will hold a news conference afterward.

UPDATE: Rhodes telephoned Curbelo on Wednesday night, according to the congressman. They spoke for about half an hour and had a "very productive conversation."

This post has been updated.

28,400 Cuban felons in the U.S. await deportation, their fate in hands of diplomacy, presidential election


via @jayhweaver @PatriciaMazzei

For the past year, the leading Republican presidential candidates have drawn a hardline on deporting illegal immigrants — especially front-runner Donald Trump, who has promised to build a towering wall along the U.S.-Mexican border to stop others from crossing.

But none of them has ever mentioned another thorny immigration issue that hits closest to home in Miami: What to do with 28,400 Cuban nationals convicted of crimes — including more than 2,000 murders — who have served their prison terms and face automatic deportations to Cuba under U.S. law?

For decades they have been allowed to live in Florida and other parts of the United States under the supervision of immigration authorities because the federal government has had no diplomatic relations with Cuba since the early 1960s. Of the total facing deportations, some 18,000 live in Florida.

But with President Barack Obama formally re-establishing relations with Cuba last year, thousands of convicted Cuban citizens in the United States could now potentially face so-called final orders of removal to their homeland.

It’s uncertain how much the issue might stir up presidential candidates competing in Tuesday’s Florida primaries — but the eventual winner of the White House will likely be left with making difficult decisions. Should all of the Cuban felons be sent back, or just the violent offenders and drug traffickers? No one has conducted voter polls on the under-the-radar issue.

“Ten or 15 years ago, this issue [of deporting Cuban felons] would have caused a lot of consternation within the Cuban American community,” said Dario Moreno, an associate professor at Florida International University. “But today, I don’t think there’s going to be much sympathy for them.”

For now, Havana officials have made it clear they don’t want any of them back. And the Obama administration has said it “has no plans to change” its “current immigration policy toward Cuba” — meaning a diplomatic stalemate persists over the pending removal orders of Cuban felons, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

More here.

Photo credit: Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

March 04, 2016

Ahead of Cuba trip, White House sends Obama adviser to meet with Cuban Americans in Miami


Ahead of President Barack Obama's trip to Cuba, a top White House lieutenant will travel to Miami to meet with leaders of the Cuban-American community, the Miami Herald has learned.

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes will meet with human rights and civil society advocates, faith leaders and business people on March 11. Rhodes helped broker the deal that normalized diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Cuban exiles were left out of the White House's talks, and were shocked to learn the news in December 2014. That has left a lot of hurt feelings from hardliners and longtime Cuban democracy advocates. Rhodes' visit may be the first chance to start addressing those concerns before the president's historic trip March 21.

Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to Cuba was canceled Thursday after the U.S. and Cuba disagreed over aspects of Kerry's itinerary, including his ability to meet with dissidents. Kerry will travel with Obama, and the White House said Friday the president will choose whom he wants to meet on the island.