August 09, 2017

U.S. slaps sanctions on 8 more Venezuelans tied to Maduro government

Venezuela Political Crisis(2)

Eight more Venezuelans tied to President Nicolás Maduro’s government, including the brother of the late President Hugo Chávez, were hit Wednesday with U.S. financial sanctions over their involvement with the South American country’s newly inaugurated legislative superbody, which the international community has decried as the start of a dictatorship.

The Trump administration will freeze U.S. assets, ban U.S. travel and prohibit Americans from doing business with the newly sanctioned Venezuelans, who are current and former government members and a leader of Maduro’s security forces, which the U.S. has accused of violently repressing dissent.

The eight people are: Adán Chávez, brother of the late president and former governor of the state of Barinas; Francisco Ameliach, governor of the state of Carabobo and leader of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV); Tania D’Amelio Cardiet, member of the National Electoral Council; Hermann Escarrá, constitutional attorney and constituent assembly delegate; Erika Farías, minister for urban agriculture; Bladimir Lugo Armas, colonel with the Bolivarian National Guard and head of legislative palace security accused of being involved “in several acts of violence” against opposition lawmakers in parliament; Carmen Meléndez Rivas, constituent assembly delegate; Ramón Darío Vivas Velasco, constituent assembly delegate and PSUV leader.

They will join Maduro, Vice President Tareck El Aissami and 20 other current and former members of the Venezuelan government, military and judiciary who have been sanctioned as the oil-rich country’s democracy crumbles. The pace of sanctions has quickened after four months of deadly street unrest following an economic collapse that resulted in widespread food and medicine shortages.

“President Maduro swore in this illegitimate constituent assembly to further entrench his dictatorship, and continues to tighten his grip on the country,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “This regime’s disregard of the will of the Venezuelan people is unacceptable, and the United States will stand with them in opposition to tyranny until Venezuela is restored to a peaceful and prosperous democracy.”

More here.

Photo credit: Ariana Cubillos, Associated Press

August 08, 2017

Marco Rubio and Mike Pence meet to discuss Venezuela (Updated)



While Donald Trump holds court in New Jersey, Vice President Mike Pence met with Sen. Marco Rubio and two other members of Congress in Washington on Tuesday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Venezuela.

South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan confirmed in a statement that the meeting was about "important issues in the Western Hemisphere that impact our national interests, including the crisis in Venezuela."

A spokesman for Duncan declined to provide a detailed readout of the meeting, deferring to Pence's office. Representatives for Pence did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The meeting between Pence and Rubio is the latest example of the Florida senator's close relationship with the White House on Latin American foreign policy issues, particularly the situation in Venezuela. Rubio and other South Florida lawmakers are lobbying Trump and Pence to impose sweeping sanctions on Venezuelan oil imports.

The White House and Treasury Department have not announced a timeline for future sanctions beyond freezing Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's U.S. assets after he held an election for a constituent assembly tasked with rewriting the nation's constitution in favor of Maduro. Maduro is the fourth foreign leader after Bashar Assad of Syria, Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe to be personally sanctioned by the U.S. government. 

Tuesday's meeting also included Cuban-American Democratic Rep. Albio Sires of New Jersey, according to Politico. Sires is the ranking member of the House Western Hemisphere subcommittee and Duncan is the chairman. 

"I am grateful that the Trump administration is soliciting input on these matters from Congressional leaders," Duncan's statement said. "I applaud the Administration for its continued actions to pressure the Venezuelan dictatorship and am encouraged by the courageous steps being taken by international partners in support of democracy and the people of Venezuela." 

Update 6:00pm: Pence tweeted about the meeting. 






Jeb Bush calls Trump's first 200 days 'exhausting'

via @learyreports

Jeb Bush said in an interview Tuesday that President Trump's first 200 days have been "exhausting" and again faulted the president for his Twitter habits.

Bush also reacted to immigration policy, saying he does not support the proposal to significantly limit legal immigration. At the same time, Bush said moving to a merit-based system is a good idea -- and one he's supported before.

"A merit-based system would be helpful for our country," Bush said in the Univision interview, "but I think we ought to take full advantage of it and not just restrict the number of legal immigrants coming in."

Bush's position is similar to Sen. Marco Rubio, who has said the Trump-backed proposal has no chance of passing Congress. On DACA, Bush said President Obama didn't have authority to offer protection to young immigrants but there is broad public support for doing so. The issue, he said, should be "dealt with in the proper channels, through Congress."

Asked to grade Trump's performance at 200 days, Bush said: 

"It's exhausting. I mean it's an incomplete grade in the sense that not much has been done. But it feels like the whole world has been turned upside down. He's created controversy where there is no need for it. He should lead. All of this tweeting and the pushing down people to make himself look better is not helping ... I hope and pray for him and his family and I pray for my country and I hope that he assumes the mantle of leadership that he has not yet done.”

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

August 07, 2017

Marco Rubio says Trump-sponsored immigration bill is "not going to pass"



Sen. Marco Rubio threw cold water over a plan backed by President Donald Trump that would curtail legal immigration and prioritize highly skilled English-speaking immigrants over immigrants with family ties to the United States during an interview with CBS 4 interview on Sunday. 

"That bill's not going to pass," Rubio said to CBS 4's Rick Folbaum. "I think the White House knows that you don't have 60 votes for that in the Senate."

Rubio expressed support for prioritizing immigrants with skills after the White House backed the plan last week. But he stopped short of explicitly endorsing the bill, authored by Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, dubbed the Raise Act. 

"It actually has elements of it that were part of the 2013 proposal," Rubio said, referring to his bipartisan immigration overhaul effort which failed after the House decided not to vote on it. "In 2013 the very controversial Gang of Eight, four Democrats and four Republicans, proposed moving legal immigration to a merit-based system." 

Rubio said he supports a point-based system that rewards immigrants for skills like knowing English. 

"It wouldn't be entirely merit-based but it would be more merit-based and it has to be in the 21st century," Rubio said.

Folbaum pressed Rubio over what a merit-based system would mean for immigrants like Rubio's parents, who worked in a variety of low-skilled jobs after they immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s. 

"When my parents came here in 1956 we had a very different economy," Rubio said. "We had an economy that had a plethora of low-wage, low-skilled jobs. That's not the case anymore and our immigration system needs to reflect it. Our laws always are adjusted for the era in which we lived in." 

Though Rubio supports giving more points on merit and less points for family connections, he did differ from Trump, Cotton and Perdue on one part of the proposal: cutting the number of legal immigrants in half.

"I don't want to limit legal immigration, I certainly want to change the way we conduct it," Rubio said. "Where I probably have a big difference of opinion with this bill is that it sets an arbitrary cap on the number of people that are able to come through with a green card. I don't think that should be an arbitrary cap, that number should be driven by demand."

Rubio was also asked about the possibility of running against Trump in 2020 if the president continues to struggle in the polls. 

Not surprisingly, Rubio said he wasn't interested.

"I am enjoying my service in the Senate," Rubio said. "I think that’s a hypothetical that isn’t even worth exploring because it isn't going to happen that way. I expect the performance in the White House will improve significantly now with Gen. (John) Kelly there."



August 04, 2017

Trump says he won 84 percent of the Cuban-American vote. Fake news?

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President Donald Trump told Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in a phone conversation that he won 84 percent of the Cuban-American vote in the November elections.

“In the latest election, I won with a large percentage of Hispanic voters. I do not know if you heard, but with Cuba, I had 84 percent, with the Cuban-American vote,” Trump said during the Jan. 27 call, according to a transcript published Thursday by The Washington Post.

But the best estimates of Trump's share of the Cuban-American vote in November are far, far lower — 50 to 58 percent — and experts say they have no idea where Trump could have gotten his number.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

No one knows exactly how Cuban Americans vote because the process is secret, but many voters are regularly surveyed at exit polls to determine their preferences.

Another way to estimate preferences is to look at the residents of voting precincts and try to align them with vote results. Such estimates, however, depend in part on how the residents define themselves — just as Hispanic or specifically Cuban American, for example.

But none of the estimates of Cuban-American votes for Trump reached 84 percent.

Let’s take a look at exit polls first. An exit poll by the non-partisan Edison Research, which does polling for CNN and Fox, gave Trump 54 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Florida. About 67 percent of the 1.2 million voters of Cuban origin live in Florida, according to the Pew Research Center.


Latino Decision, a Democratic polling firm, gave Trump 52 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Florida, based on a November election eve poll. The firm estimated that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won about half the Cuban-American vote nationwide, indicating that Cuban-American voters outside Florida tend to be less conservative.

Immediately after the election, Republicans and Democrats clashed over the numbers.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, former executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC who was appointed by Trump to the Treasury Department, estimated that Trump won 58 percent of the Cuban-American vote based on his review of results from about 30 Miami-Dade precincts with large Cuban-American populations.

Democratic strategist Giancarlo Sopo and Florida International University professor Guillermo Grenier estimated that Trump won 50 percent of the Cuban-American vote after reviewing results from Hialeah, Westchester and West Miami.

Democratic pollsters and analysts said exit polls also showed Trump did not do as well as Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate in 2012, who won an estimated 65 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Florida.

Sopo and Grenier concluded that the Cuban-American vote in Florida was “important but not decisive” for Trump's victory.

“Even under Mauricio's (Claver-Carone) analysis there wasn't a single Cuban precinct where Trump got 84 percent of the vote,” said Sopo.

Read more here.

August 03, 2017

Trump meets in Oval Office with Rubio and Bay of Pigs vets


Here's something that wasn't on President Donald Trump's public schedule Thursday: a private Oval Office gathering with Cuban-American Bay of Pigs veterans.

The six men got their picture taken with Sen. Marco Rubio and Trump, seated behind the Resolute Desk, according to a photo tweeted by Rubio's office.

Last time Trump was in Miami, tightening U.S. policy toward Cuba, he met for a few minutes backstage at the Manuel Artime Theater in East Little Havana with Brigade 2506 veterans. The brigade issued its first-ever presidential endorsement last year, for Trump, a fact he has since repeatedly mentioned as important to his campaign.

Photo courtesy Rubio's office 

Rubio still considering Trump-sponsored immigration plan introduced in February

Editorialpic (1)


n 2013, Marco Rubio and three other Republican senators worked with Democrats to draft a bipartisan immigration bill.

Rubio’s 2013 bill, which proposed an expanded visa program for low-skilled workers, failed after the House decided not to vote on it.

On Wednesday, Rubio said he was still considering a different immigration proposal, backed by the White House, that cuts the number of green cards for low-skilled and non-English speaking immigrants. The 15-page plan was first introduced in the Senate in February, and the White House announced its support Wednesday.

Of the four Republican senators who drafted the 2013 bill, Rubio is the only one who hasn’t voiced disagreement.

“I’m glad to see the president is open to a step-by-step approach to improving our immigration laws, and I stand ready to work with my colleagues in Congress on common sense proposals to achieve real progress for Americans on this issue,” Rubio said in a statement. “I continue to support reform that prioritizes welcoming people to our country based on their skills, not just on whether they have a family member already living here.”
Rubio’s comments were in contrast to his three GOP colleagues who worked on the immigration bill.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Trump’s proposal “incentivizes more illegal immigration” by limiting the number of visas for low-skilled jobs in tourism and agriculture that would otherwise go unfilled.

Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona said: “We need to make sure we are responsive to the needs of our economy and I’m concerned that drastic cuts to the number of immigrants fails to meet that goal.”

The other GOP senator who worked on the 2013 bill, John McCain of Arizona, is receiving treatment for cancer. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in February, McCain told reporters he was “not interested” in the bill.

Rubio, whose parents came to the United States from Cuba and worked in low-skill jobs for a period of time, declined to comment on the immigration policy beyond his statement.

His office said Rubio has always prioritized English-speaking immigrants, citing his work on the 2013 bill that would require green card holders to achieve English proficiency.

“On the day we announced the principles that would shape the immigration bill, we made it clear that English proficiency would now be required for permanent residency for the first time in American history,” Rubio said in 2013.

Rubio did not play a role in drafting the new proposal, his office said.

The White House said the plan, dubbed the Raise Act, will prioritize immigrants who speak English, have special skills and can support themselves financially. The Raise Act will prioritize high-wage immigrants because the White House argues that low-skilled legal immigrants currently drive down wages for all Americans.

Two of Rubio’s South Florida colleagues, Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo, said they do not support the new legal immigration proposal.

“I’m against the RAISE Act because it dramatically cuts the number of folks who can enter our great nation by legal means,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. “There are many individuals living in other lands who dream of becoming patriotic, law-abiding Americans but will be prevented from realizing that dream because they do not yet speak English or they lack special skills.”

Read more here.

Why the U.S. is taking its time before imposing more Venezuela sanctions


@PatriciaMazzei @FrancoOrdonez

Caught in the White House transition this week from Reince Priebus to John Kelly: steep economic sanctions the U.S. threatened against Venezuela if President Nicolás Maduro rammed through his new constituent assembly in a Sunday vote denounced as fraudulent.

Kelly, a military general who used to head U.S. Southern Command in Miami, is intimately familiar with Venezuela’s tumult. And since being named chief of staff Friday, he’s taken a key role in shaping the Trump administration’s response to the South American country’s crisis, sources close to the White House said.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who has worked with President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, the National Security Council, Priebus and now Kelly on Venezuela policy, said he felt reassured by Kelly’s Oval Office presence.

“We’re fortunate it worked out this way,” Rubio told the Miami Herald in an interview. “The president has Kelly next to him — not just a chief of staff who I believe will improve the performance of the White House, but someone who I believe understands Venezuela as well or better as anyone in the administration.”

Kelly’s involvement appears to be one of several reasons why the White House has taken its time before escalating penalties against Venezuela — not because Kelly opposes more sanctions, but because he wants to vet and weigh in on the administration’s plan. 

Maduro announced late Wednesday his government intends to seat the new constituent assembly Friday, a watershed move expected to trigger further action by the U.S. and international community, which have condemned the violence-marred election and refused to recognize the new assembly.

More here.

Photo credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

August 02, 2017

State Department won’t call Venezuelan election ‘illegitimate’ while White House takes harder stance

Venezuela Political Crisis (1) (1)

@patriciamazzei @alextdaugherty 

The top State Department official in charge of Latin America declined Wednesday — even when pressed — to call a Venezuelan election “illegitimate,” as evidence mounted that the vote for a new legislative body with nearly unfettered power was fraudulent.

Francisco Palmieri, acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, characterized Sunday’s election as “flawed” and said the U.S. will not recognize the new constituent assembly once it is seated as early as Wednesday.

“The election Sunday was a flawed attempt to undermine democratic institutions in Venezuela,” Palmieri said at a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing. “We support the democratically elected National Assembly in its efforts to promote an enduring, peaceful solution to the crises in Venezuela.”

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who was chairing the hearing, wasn’t satisfied.

“So, just to be clear, is it the position of the administration that the vote that occurred on Sunday is illegitimate?” Rubio asked.

Palmieri repeated himself. Again Rubio asked. Again Palmieri deflected, though each time he inched closer to Rubio’s position.

“I know the process was flawed,” Rubio said, taking Palmieri to task. “The outcome is this new constituent assembly. There cannot be a legitimate National Assembly and a legitimate constituent assembly. If the National Assembly is the only legitimate entity, the constituent assembly by definition is illegitimate.”

“I take your point,” Palmieri conceded. “Yes, sir.”

The State Department’s resistance to use “illegitimate” came after U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley deployed the word Sunday. The White House, National Security Council and Treasury Department also adopted far harsher language against Venezuela in recent days, branding President Nicolás Maduro a “dictator” and referring to his government as a “dictatorship” that could be hit with escalating U.S. sanctions.

Critics have argued going hard after Maduro’s government is counterproductive because it gives him an anti-U.S. cause to rally supporters.

“Impose all the sanctions you want!” Maduro said in a televised speech Monday. “The Venezuelan people have decided to be free, and I’ve decided to be the president of a free people.”

In an interview published late Tuesday by Spanish news agency EFE and cited by Rubio, Deputy Assistant Secretary for South America Michael Fitzpatrick said the U.S. wants “dialogue” with Maduro’s government.

“We respect the official government of Venezuela and of President Maduro at this time,” Fitzpatrick said.

In contrast, President Donald Trump has vowed “strong and swift” economic sanctions against Venezuela that have yet to materialize.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who took a few days off last week as the U.S. sanctioned 13 members of Maduro’s government, said Tuesday the administration is still considering “what can we do to create a change of conditions where either Maduro decides he doesn’t have a future — and wants to leave of his own accord — or we can return the government processes back to their constitution.”

Read more here.

August 01, 2017

Curbelo draws Democratic challenger in swing Florida district


@patriciamazzei @alextdaugherty

Months after Democrats began calling him a top national target, Carlos Curbelo has drawn a serious 2018 challenger.

Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who ran a stronger-than-expected state Senate campaign in 2016, will run for Congress. She plans to hold a news conference announcing her candidacy Wednesday.

“It’s shocking that the people in Washington are trying to strip healthcare from millions of Americans,” Mucarsel-Powell told the Miami Herald in an interview Monday, taking a jab at Curbelo. “The person that I’m running against voted for Trumpcare.”

She claimed Curbelo “has voted more than 86 percent of the time with Trump,” but also insisted: “I don’t want to focus my entire energy on what’s happening with the president.”

The bilingual Mucarsel-Powell, 46, was born in Ecuador, where she lived until she was 14. That’s when she and her single mother and three sisters moved to southern California. Mucarsel-Powell followed a sister to South Florida in 1996.

Now married with a stepdaughter, a daughter and a son, Mucarsel-Powell lives in Pinecrest, which is outside the 26th congressional district, a stretch of Westchester to Key West. She rents property in the Florida Keys, she said. Curbelo lives about a mile from the district’s boundaries in West Kendall.

After years of working in various nonprofit organizations, at ZooMiami and for Florida International University, Mucarsel-Powell opened a consulting firm on strategic planning.

“I’ve spent my entire life in nonprofits trying to bring change, positive change,” she said. “People are really charged. They’re angry. They’re frustrated. They want change.”

For months, national Democrats have labeled Curbelo a top target, citing his district’s Democratic-leaning makeup. It favors Democrats by 6 percentage points, according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index, making Curbelo’s district the most Democratic in the country currently held by a Republican. Last year, Hillary Clinton bested Trump in the district by 16 points.

But Curbelo defeated Democrat Joe Garcia by 12 points, a 28-point swing showing Curbelo’s crossover appeal among Democrats and independents. He’s also a prolific fundraiser who had $1.1 million in his campaign account as of June 30 and consistently posts among the highest fundraising hauls of House members in both parties. Mucarsel-Powell said she expects to have to raise at least $4 million to compete.

Curbelo’s support in May for the American Health Care Act, House Republicans’ proposed replacement for the Affordable Care Act, was political manna for Democratic Party leaders, who see the vote as one of Curbelo’s biggest electoral weaknesses in a district where 92,500 people get health insurance through Obamacare — one of the highest rates in the country. Republicans have already vowed to spend millions of dollars defending Curbelo and other Republicans in competitive districts who backed the legislation.

Read more here.