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October 03, 2017

U.S. to expel two-thirds of Cuban diplomats amid sonic attack probe


via @francoordonez

The Trump administration will kick nearly two-thirds of Cuba’s embassy personnel out of the United States after months of mysterious attacks targeting American diplomats drove the White House to pull its own staff from Havana, according to multiple sources familiar with the plan.

According to three of the U.S. sources briefed on the plan, the State Department will announce the expulsion of Cuban diplomatic personnel as soon as Tuesday. A fourth described the expulsion as “reciprocity” for the American withdrawal from Havana.

A series of mysterious “sonic” attacks began months ago and has affected as many as 25 U.S. personnel. According to one source, U.S. intelligence operatives were the first known American personnel affected. The most recent incidents were reported within the last few weeks.

The United States still does not know the nature of the device or weapon being employed against its staff.

The State Department has not accused Cuba of being behind the incidents. But it has repeatedly warned that Havana is responsible for the safety of foreign diplomats on its soil under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations.
“Cuba is not upholding its commitments of the Vienna convention, of protecting diplomats,” said a U.S. source, familiar with the State Department plans.

The State Department’s plan follows days of pressure from some U.S. lawmakers to expel Cuban diplomatic personnel after the White House pulled Americans out of Havana and issued a travel warning.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who has emerged as a key advisor to President Donald Trump on all Latin America issues, tweeted last week that the United States “should expel a Cuban diplomat for every U.S. diplomat evacuated due to acoustic attacks.”

“I spoke on Friday to the State Department and I told them that I am strongly advocating that the U.S. kick those 'diplomats,' who are nothing more than spies, out of the U.S.,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican. “State told me that it was reviewing this action, so I’m pleased as punch to hear that it may happen soon.”

Read more here.

October 02, 2017

Florida Democrats deliver aid to Puerto Rico, and return ‘in tears’


Two charter planes flew eight Florida Democratic state lawmakers to Ponce, Puerto Rico, on Monday to deliver Hurricane Maria relief aid.

But for two of the legislators, the trip was more personal.

Sen. Victor Torres and his daughter, Rep. Amy Mercado, both of Orlando, had contacted Torres’ niece in New Jersey. Call your father in Puerto Rico on his land line, if it’s working, they’d said. Tell him to meet us at the Ponce airport.

He did.

And so, Torres and Mercado saw their family standing outside the airport fence and wept. 

“He said to me, ‘Vitín, necesitamos agua,’” Torres said, reciting his childhood nickname. “We need water. We need food. We don’t have electricity.”

Mercado emptied her backpack, filled with personal supplies for the day, and gave them to her great-uncle.

“The reports that are coming out seem desperate, but what you see is even more desperate,” she said.

Torres and Mercado traveled as part of an 11-member delegation organized by Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel that included Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and Greenacres Mayor Joel Flores, who is of Puerto Rican descent and had collected the supplies — including power generators and chainsaws — in a post-storm donation drive.

More here.

Photo courtesy Florida Democratic Party

Florida Republicans create distance with Trump on Puerto Rico


@alextdaugherty @patriciamazzei

While President Donald Trump spent the weekend attacking the mayor of San Juan and blasting negative coverage of Hurricane Maria recovery efforts, Florida state Rep. Bob Cortes was worried about his daughter in San Juan’s western suburbs.

Cortes’ daughter, Leslie, and her 2-year-old son, Jeremy, had their roof torn off during Hurricane Maria, and two feet of water rushed into their house in Dorado.

“I was terrified they were going to lose their lives,” Cortes said, as his voice trembled.

The second-term Republican lawmaker from Altamonte Springs spent days trying to reach family members in Puerto Rico and is asking anyone he can for help.

They might not be directly criticizing Trump. But Florida Republicans are taking a noticeably different tack from the leader of their party when it comes to Puerto Rico, an issue that affects some of them, like Cortes, personally — and many of them politically.
Instead of adopting the president’s finger-pointing rhetoric, the federal and state GOP lawmakers are highlighting the need for action in Puerto Rico. Some 1 million Puerto Ricans call Florida home.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio urged Trump to let the military lead logistical Hurricane Maria relief efforts. Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday that Florida will open relief centers Tuesday for Puerto Ricans arriving in Miami and Orlando. He also asked schools to give in-state tuition to Puerto Rican students displaced by the hurricane.

How many might come is unknown. “A lot,” Scott guessed.

Rubio has said this isn’t the time to talk hurricane-relief politics, but a day before Trump was scheduled to land in San Juan, the senator acknowledged the initial response from the administration could have been swifter.

“In hindsight, we all wish we could get those three or four days back,” Rubio told reporters in Miami on Monday after they asked if Washington could have done more — and more quickly — to aid the island. “I want us to focus 100 percent on what we need to do to improve the recovery effort. And we have plenty of time in the future to sit there and point to the mistakes that were made.... But right now every minute we spend doing that sort of thing is a minute that isn’t being spent trying to improve reconstruction and deal with it.”

State lawmakers said that an influx of thousands of Puerto Ricans won’t go unnoticed.

“Florida’s the closest one to Puerto Rico, and it’s ground zero for relief efforts,” said Cortes, who represents a portion of Orange and Seminole Counties. “We’re going to be shipping most of the things they need to get back on their feet.”

Cortes said he expects at least 100,000 Puerto Ricans to relocate to Florida after the storm, and many of them will settle in greater Orlando. Puerto Ricans already tend to vote Democratic, potentially altering the political dynamics of America’s largest swing state ahead of the 2018 elections.

“It can be a game-changer politically,” said state Rep. Amy Mercado, a Puerto Rican Democrat from Orlando. “The speed of what’s occurring, that’s the million-dollar question. How fast, how much and how long?”

A 100,000-vote swing in favor of Democrats would have given Charlie Crist the governorship in 2014 over Scott and would have eaten up most of Trump’s margin of victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

But the math isn’t that simple. Not all Puerto Ricans will vote for Democrats, and many will choose not to vote at all. Cortes argued that Puerto Ricans coming directly from the island are more likely to vote Republican than second-or third-generation Puerto Ricans.

“Those that have been coming usually tend to be more ideologically with the Republican Party because they are leaving a place that had fiscal issues,” Cortes said, adding that both parties need to do a better job of reaching out to Puerto Ricans in Florida.

Read more here.

Lawmakers want flexibility for schools to help incoming Puerto Ricans

Cortes and bileca


As Florida communities prepare to take in Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria, five lawmakers are asking the state’s top education official to grant flexibility to public schools so they can accommodate additional students in the coming months.

In a letter to state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart on Monday, the lawmakers formally asked the state to ensure schools receive additional funding that will be crucial to cover the uptick in student enrollment that wasn’t anticipated when the Legislature approved this year’s school spending in June.

They also want Stewart to give schools a break when it comes to certain required enrollment paperwork and constitutionally mandated caps on class sizes.

“It is extremely important for Florida to be prepared for a large number of evacuees from Puerto Rico,” Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, said in a statement. “So many Puerto Rican families have literally lost everything, and we must stand ready to do everything possible to help their children transition as seamlessly as possible to a new school and learning environment.”

More here.

Photo credit: State Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, talks with House Education Committee chairman Michael Bileca, R-Miami, on the House floor in April. [Florida House]

Report details how Florida's utility regulators have become 'captive' to the industry they regulate

FPL trucksThe watchdog over electricity rates for most Floridians has been captured by the utility industry and the result is costing consumers, according to a new report released Monday by the independent research organization Integrity Florida.

The report analyzed dozens of decisions made by the Florida Public Service Commission in recent years and concluded that there is an “inordinate focus on what additional money a [utility] company wants, at the expense of attention to what the public interest needs.”

The report details what it calls “egregious voting and unfair ratemaking,” a selection process that allows the utility industry to heavily influence legislators and the governor — who appoint the regulators — through campaign cash and lobbyists, and a revolving door between the Florida Legislature, the PSC and the utility industry.

“Make no mistake, what we’re talking about today is corruption. It’s legal corruption,” said Ben Wilcox, director of Integrity Florida at a news conference Monday. “It’s institutional corruption but it’s corruption nonetheless.” Story here. 

Gov. Scott orders flags at half-staff for Las Vegas shooting victims



Gov. Rick Scott has ordered all state and U.S. flags to be flown at half-staff across Florida until sunset Friday "in honor and remembrance" of the at least 58 people killed and more than 500 injured in a mass shooting late Sunday at a Las Vegas music festival.

Scott's order comes after President Donald Trump made a similar proclamation for the nation.

“Ann and I are praying for Las Vegas and all the innocent lives senselessly taken in this tragic attack," Scott said in a statement. "Our hearts go out to every family impacted by last night’s shooting.”

The tragedy is the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history -- surpassing the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando last year, when 49 people were killed.

Scott updated his daily schedule this afternoon to also reflect a call with University of Florida President Ken Fuchs after the university's Law School announced one of its students had been wounded in the shooting.

Photo credit: Florida Gov. Rick Scott gives opening statements as he hosted the Latin American Summit at the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Miami on Monday. Carl Juste / Miami Herald

Rick Scott for HHS secretary? The governor laughs.


Now that U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has resigned, could President Donald Trump be considering Florida Gov. Rick Scott for the high-profile gig?

Scott laughed off the suggestion Monday, at a Latin America summit he organized in Miami.

"I have a really good job right now," he told reporters. "Ii have about 365 days -- 465 days, is that right? -- yeah, 465 days left in this job.

"My job is to do what I came here to do with the summit, to try to create a state where everybody can get a good job, people can get a good education, and people are safe. We're in a 46-year low on our crime rate. We've added over 1.4 million jobs. That's what I do every day."

Could he be Florida's next U.S. senator, if he challenges Democrat Bill Nelson?

"That's 2018," Scott said. "We'll worry about stuff like that in 2018."

Florida politicians react to Las Vegas shooting

via @learyreports

Sen. Bill Nelson (D): “Our thoughts and prayers are with all the victims of this horrific attack. As the investigation continues, we will learn more about what led to this tragedy in Las Vegas, but at some point we, as a society, have to stand up and say enough is enough.”

In Miami, Sen. Marco Rubio (R) told reporters the Las Vegas shooting was “a horrible tragedy.”

“An individual acquired weaponry and used it to kill people, and it’s terrible,” Rubio said. “We don’t know the motivation. We’ll learn more in the days to come, and if there’s public policy that could have prevented an attack like that, then we most certainly would consider it. The problem with many of the recommendations I’ve heard in the past is that frankly they would not have prevented any of the attacks.... But I think we need to learn more about what happened in Las Vegas. What we know now is that it’s been a horrible tragedy, and it appears now to be the largest mass-casualty event -- shooting -- in American history.”

Gov. Rick Scott opened his Latin America summit in Miami on Monday by asking for a moment of silence for the Las Vegas shooting victims.

“Your heart goes out to everybody, every family member that’s been impacted,” he said. “I think back to what happened in the Pulse attack, and just sitting down with those families -- there’s no words that can console anybody. You never understand the evil in the world, why somebody would do something like this.”

Scott later told reporters, “It’s just so senseless.... I’m praying for the people that are injured, and I hope they all survive. It had to be traumatic to be there.”

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami:

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami:

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston: “While we mourn for the victims, families, survivors and first responders who went through this horrific tragedy in Las Vegas, we cannot stop the conversation there. There was an airport mass shooting in my community in January, and Orlando’s Pulse tragedy is a fresh, painful memory. Now we have a new 'worst-ever gun-shooting' tragedy before us. Congress must send more than thoughts and prayers. It must act, and immediately adopt sensible gun control measures. Every Member of Congress has a moral obligation to take immediate action to prevent these senseless gun deaths from happening yet again.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach: “Last night, Las Vegas suffered a terrible attack. A gunman opened fire on innocent people at a concert, killing many and injuring many more. As a nation, we are grateful for the response of law enforcement, first responders, and the brave men and women who risked their own safety in order to protect and assist their fellow Americans. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected by this tragedy.”

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa: “I am shocked and saddened by the horrific act of gun violence in Las Vegas. I am praying for the victims and their families and know many across the Tampa Bay area are doing the same. Day in and day out, too many American families suffer the consequences of our country’s gun violence epidemic. Certainly, we can come together to pass common sense safety requirements such as background checks and limits on civilian use of military-style weapons, and to enforce the laws on the books. The sorrow that I and so many around the country feel for the innocent men and women whose lives were cruelly cut short by this heartless act of domestic terrorism is immeasurable. We will never allow these acts of terror to control us – but after so many lives lost around our country for so long by public acts of gun violence, we must ask ourselves why this is allowed to continue. We owe it to the victims of these horrible acts of gun violence to take steps that will ensure more innocent lives are not lost to future tragedies.”

Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar: “Just last year, our nation witnessed what was at the time the worst mass shooting in our history. It is beyond tragic that we are once again confronted by the unspeakable evil of mass shootings in America. As details of this tragedy emerge, there is no question that this shooting must reshape our nation’s conversation about guns.

“More than 33,000 people will die from gun violence this year. And unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of Americans killed every day by gun violence never garner ‘breaking news’ headlines.

“Republican Members of Congress have a bad habit of ignoring the devastation brought by gun violence, siding instead with the extreme voices of their party. With each new tragedy that occurs, those who stand in the way of legislation to address our country’s gun violence epidemic are increasingly culpable for its continuation. Today, we come together as a nation to sadly mourn those who lost their lives in this tragic and senseless violence. Let us finally act with a unified voice and with the necessary resolve to stem the tide of gun violence in America once and for all.”

Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Panama City: “Leah and I were heartbroken to hear of the tragic events that claimed so many lives in Las Vegas last night. We are praying for all who were affected by this tragedy. Thank you to all of the officers and first responders who immediately took action. Their bravery saved countless lives.”

--with Patricia Mazzei

Rubio on federal response to Puerto Rico: 'In hindsight, we all wish we could get those 3 or 4 days back'


Florida Republicans don't want to criticize President Donald Trump's administration for its slow-moving response to assist Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

But they're also not going out of their way to praise it.

"In hindsight, we all wish we could get those three or four days back," U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio told reporters in Miami on Monday after they asked if Washington could have done more -- and more quickly -- to aid the island. "The good news is, now that Lt. Gen. [Jeffrey] Buchanan is on the ground, it appears that every single day that goes by, they have more control and authority over the reestablishment of logistics."

Delicate politics are at play: Republicans expect perhaps thousands of Puerto Ricans to move to states like Florida in the storm's aftermath. Puerto Ricans already tend to vote Democratic. And now some of them are upset at Trump's Twitter jabs at San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz -- and at Puerto Rican workers -- after Maria.

Will they remember once they move here and go to the polls on Election Day?

"I haven't thought about the political dynamic of it, because we're still in the middle of a response to a hurricane," Rubio said. "So, in the short-term, all I've said is, I want us to focus 100 percent on what we need to do to improve the recovery effort. And anything that isn't about that is taking away [from that]. And we have plenty of time in the future to sit there and point to the mistakes that were made, and what could be done better, and what we would do differently, but right now every minute we spend sort of doing that sort of thing is a minute that isn't being spent trying to improve reconstruction and deal with it." 

Trump plans to visit Puerto Rico on Tuesday. Puerto Rico's resident commissioner in Congress, Jenniffer González-Colón, estimated in an interview that aired Sunday on Miami's local Univision affiliate that as many as half a million Puerto Ricans could move to the mainland in the coming months.

Gov. Rick Scott, a fellow Republican who like Rubio traveled to Puerto Rico last week to view the hurricane's devastation firsthand, announced Monday he will open three relief centers in Miami and Orlando to help new Puerto Rican arrivals. 

Scott declined to say whether the White House could have acted with more urgency.

"I'm not here to assign blame," he said. "I know that we've worked hard to make sure we solve our problems in our state, and I know Gov. [Ricardo] Rosselló is doing [the same] over there in Puerto Rico. My experience by being over there is, I saw people working their tail off."

Scott wouldn't speculate on whether any new Florida voters from Puerto Rico could take out their frustration against him if he runs as U.S. Senate next year.

"I've been governor now for almost seven years," Scott said. "I reach out to people and talk to people and try to solve problems.... I know that people are going to come here from Puerto Rico are going to be hardworking. They're going to be part of our society, and my job as governor is to provide as many resources as I can, and give them the same opportunity that every other Floridian has."

Only Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a frequent, outspoken Trump critic who is retiring next year, openly lamented the federal government's handling of Puerto Rico, calling it "a terrible response to a horrible tragedy."

She made a point, however, to thank Rubio and Scott for their efforts -- putting them on a separate plane from the GOP president.

Answering pleas, Florida will offer aid to Puerto Rican evacuees

MIAFlorida will open three disaster relief centers Tuesday to assist Puerto Rican families displaced by Hurricane Maria.

Gov. Rick Scott said Monday that the centers, staffed by state employees, will be located at Orlando International Airport, Miami International Airport and Port Miami.

 “We know that people will come here,” Scott said in Miami at the opening of a Latin American conference. “They have family here. They have friends here. They’re comfortable coming to Florida. And so we’re going to do whatever we can. Do they need a job? Do they need housing? Do they need to find a family and friend? Is there a host family that could help them?”

Scott said Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s administration asked Florida to lend 1,500 Spanish-speaking law-enforcement officers. “We’re doing that,” Scott said. “We’re working on sending National Guard.”

Scott’s office did not specify exactly where the centers will be located or the hours of operation.

 Scott estimated that slightly less than 1 million Puerto Ricans already live in Florida.

 Asked if the federal response to Maria was slow, Scott would not say.

 Earlier Monday, Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami characterized it as “a terrible response to a horrible tragedy.”

 “I’m not here to assign blame,” Scott said. “I know that we’ve worked hard to make sure we solve our problems in our state, and I know Gov. Rosselló is doing [the same] over there in Puerto Rico. My experience by being over there is, I saw people working their tail off.”

 Scott declined to say whether Maria evacuees -- upset at President Donald Trump’s handling of the disaster response -- could turn into blue Florida voters casting ballots against the president and governor in future elections.

 “I’ve been governor now for almost seven years,” Scott said. “I reach out to people and talk to people and try to solve problems.” “I know that people are going to come here from Puerto Rico are going to be hardworking,” he added. “They’re going to be part of our society, and my job as governor is to provide as many resources as I can and give them the same opportunity that every other Floridian has.”

 Scott’s announcement on Monday followed a written request last Friday from a dozen Democratic state legislators who called for the opening of disaster recovery centers in Florida.

 The governor also spoke by phone Sunday with at least two lawmakers, including Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, who earlier emphasized the need for “one-stop” recovery centers.

“It went well,” Cortes said of his talk with Scott. “He‘s listening to what we’re saying. He asked us, what can we (the state) do.”

-- With reporting by Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei