August 02, 2017

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

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@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.

July 24, 2017

As chaos envelops Venezuela, Caracas spends millions on lobbyists in Washington

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@alextdaugherty

Venezuela’s currency is essentially worthless. Its people are starving. Rampant inflation has rendered the bolívar less useful than toilet paper.

And since Donald Trump’s election, the Venezuelan government has spent at least $1.3 million on Washington lobbyists through its subsidiary Citgo, a Houston-based oil company.

Three Washington-based firms currently represent Venezuela in Washington, pushing Capitol Hill, the White House and Cabinet agencies on issues like “fuel refining” and the “potential impact of U.S. energy policies on CITGO’s operation impacting U.S. consumers,” according to Senate lobbying records.

Caracas sees its investment in lobbyists as a way to fight possible sweeping sanctions targeting Venezuelan oil. Pushed by lawmakers like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the White House said last week “all options are on the table” and promised “strong and swift economic actions” ahead of a vote on July 30 that could alter the country’s constitution in favor of President Nicolás Maduro.

“The costs for representation is a drop in the bucket when compared to the potential economic loss” of oil sanctions, said C.J. Gimenez, the son of Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Gimenez and a lobbyist who left Avenue Strategies, a firm started by Donald Trump’s former campaign aides, after the firm decided to pick up Citgo as a client. 

U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s oil market could have major financial implications for the Maduro regime and for average Venezuelans. Although Venezuelan crude makes up a small fraction — about eight percent in 2016 — of all U.S. oil imports, the U.S. buys nearly half of Venezuela’s oil, and oil revenues account for 95 percent of Venezuela’s export earnings, according to OPEC.

Gimenez said Venezuela’s greatest asset is its oil and that Maduro “uses it to fund his continued existence.”

In order to shore up the Maduro regime’s future in the face of intense pressure, Washington-based lobbying shops, Avenue Strategies, Cornerstone Government Affairs and VantageKnight. All are well connected in the nation’s capital, spending millions on behalf of corporate titans like Google and Citigroup and staffed with former congressional aides who know Capitol Hill.

VantageKnight, a firm started by Democratic strategist and lawyer Manuel Ortiz, spent $540,000 on behalf of Citgo to lobby on the “potential impact of U.S. energy & foreign policy restrictions on CITGO Petroleum Corporation's operations and valuation of assets” and “sanctions related issues” in 2017.

Neither Citgo nor Ortiz responded to requests for comment. An operator at a Houston office for Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA, which owns Citgo, hung up when contacted by a reporter.

Citgo is feeling the heat in Washington, where lawmakers have questioned PDVSAs’ pledge of 49.9 percent of its shares in Citgo as collateral for a $1.5 billion loan from the Russian government-owned oil giant Rosneft. That could leave Moscow with indirect control over Citgo’s U.S. energy assets, including three oil refineries, nine pipelines and dozens of petroleum platforms.

Read more here.

July 21, 2017

At key moment, Cuban-American lawmakers adopt Venezuela cause as their own

Venezuela Political Crisis

@patriciamazzei @alextdaugherty 

For months, Cuban-American lawmakers have deployed familiar rhetoric to warn Washington colleagues of a democracy under threat in Latin America, where people are deprived of food and the ballot box, and where economic collapse could empower Russia uncomfortably close to home.

“This is a dysfunctional narco-state that is in a death spiral in terms of its ability to function,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

“We are talking about a nearly failed state in our own hemisphere,” said Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey.

“We will have a swift and firm response from our own administration,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami.

But the tough talk isn’t about Cuba. It’s about Venezuela.

The fight for a free Cuba — a fight carried in their bones, transcending all politics — has fueled Cuban-American lawmakers for decades in their campaign against Fidel and Raúl Castro. But President Donald Trump has already taken a tougher line toward Cuba, as the legislators wanted. So, the unfolding Venezuela crisis has become Cuban Americans’ new crusade.

“Just like it has been too long for the Cuban people, most people are coming to the understanding that this is part of the same movement, the same cancer that has been sickening the Cuban people and the Venezuelan people for decades now,” Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo said in a Capitol Hill speech to Venezuelan activists and lawmakers Wednesday.

Cuban-American Republicans and Democrats agree President Nicolás Maduro must be stopped. Their united front could amplify their clout: As with Cuba, one of their own — Rubio — has proven to be the White House’s go-to legislator on Latin America.

Rubio, a Republican who’s spent years in Congress criticizing Maduro, says he’s been in regular touch with Trump and especially Vice President Mike Pence about how to sanction Venezuela if Maduro moves forward with a planned July 30 election. That vote would create a constituent assembly empowered to rewrite the nation’s constitution, effectively replacing a democratically elected legislature with Maduro loyalists.

“The United States will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles,” Trump said in a statement Monday, released as Rubio made similar remarks on Twitter. “If the Maduro regime imposes its Constituent Assembly on July 30, the United States will take strong and swift economic actions.”

Rubio, Ros-Lehtinen, Curbelo and fellow Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart back banning Venezuelan oil imports, a drastic measure once considered unthinkable against the No. 3 oil supplier to the U.S. But also in favor is a local Democrat, Weston Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who represents thousands of Venezuelans.

The message: On Cuba, Rubio and company faced significant opposition, both on Capitol Hill and in Trump’s administration. On Venezuela, they don’t.

“There’s not a single senator that I’ve seen, and no House member that I’ve heard from, who still supports this regime,” Rubio told the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute in bilingual remarks Wednesday. “Once there were people who sometimes backed [former Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez, or said things about Chávez in the past. But that doesn’t exist anymore. No one here supports Maduro.”

Even Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat who worked with the late Chávez, frequently traveled to Venezuela during Chávez’s presidency and is the only sitting member of Congress who attended Chávez’s funeral, supports sanctions.

“We are compelled to take a stand on what’s right,” Meeks said. “Sanctions that are being considered are the right things to do.”

Behind the bipartisan push is a deeply held belief that Maduro is just another Fidel — and a sense that if Cuban Americans and their allies don’t defend Venezuela in Washington, no one will.

“We need to let the Venezuelan people know that they are not alone in this fight, that we stand together with them, that we will not rest until Venezuela is free from oppression and is once again a nation of democracy and the rule of law,” Ros-Lehtinen said in an impassioned speech Wednesday.

The position is certainly heart-felt, but politics aren’t entirely out of the picture: Venezuelans fleeing Chávez and now Maduro could emerge as a significant voting bloc in Florida, the nation’s largest swing state.

Read more here.

 

June 27, 2017

The Trump whisperer: Marco Rubio has the president’s ear on Latin America

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@alextdaugherty 

Donald Trump has a distaste for the State Department and its legions of diplomats tasked with crafting the nation’s foreign policy.

So when it comes to Latin America, the CEO-turned-president is listening to a man he derided on the campaign trail a year ago: Marco Rubio.

It was Rubio who set up a White House meeting with Lilian Tintori, a human-rights activist married to jailed Venezuelan dissident Leopoldo Lopez. After the meeting, Trump tweeted his support for Lopez, a public rebuke of embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

It was Rubio who helped draft a changed Cuba policy in recent weeks, culminating in Trump’s first presidential visit to Miami to fulfill a campaign promise to the conservative Cubans who helped him win the White House.

And Rubio is well-positioned to take advantage of a vacuum of leadership in the State Department and communicate directly with a president who dislikes diplomacy-as-usual on Latin American foreign policy, according to interviews with former Rubio foreign policy staffers and State Department officials.

“They’ve asked for my input on basically every issue in Latin America and the Western Hemisphere and … we’ve been engaged with them and they’ve been very open,” Rubio said. “In some ways, the fact that they didn’t come in with preconceived ideas of what to do has created the space for that debate to occur.”

There’s plenty of space.

Six months into his administration, Donald Trump has yet to appoint dozens of high-level State Department employees, including the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, the top diplomat in charge of Latin America.

And the president bucked the advice of some of his own senior officials and a slew of congressional Republicans in favor of Rubio to finish the Cuba deal.

Rubio “found a way to say, ‘You don’t want to listen to the experts, listen to me,’ ” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a group that lobbies for closer Cuba ties and is opposed to Trump’s policy changes. “He found a really successful way to tell Trump, don’t listen to your own bureaucracy.”

Not that Trump needs an excuse to eschew the federal bureaucracy, which will be massively downsized if the White House gets its way.

Trump wants to cut the State Department’s budget by 30 percent, repeatedly rails against foreign aid and openly disagreed with his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, during a dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

“It is a genuine problem not to have people that are diplomats, trained people that really are very loyal and dedicated American citizens who want to represent their country,” said former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, a Democrat who served under Bill Clinton. “I’ve just been traveling abroad, and our embassies don’t have enough people.”

Read more here. 

June 13, 2017

Rex Tillerson doesn't get into Cuba policy review specifics during Senate hearing

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@alextdaugherty 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not get into specifics when asked about President Donald Trump's Cuba announcement set for Friday in Miami as senators from both parties questioned Tillerson during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday.

"Can you give us some of the general contours you see shaping up relative to what that policy is going to be?" asked committee chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and Trump ally. 

"The general approach...is to allow as much of this continued commercial and engagement activity go to on as possible," Tillerson said. "We do see the sunny side as I describe it, we do see the benefits of that and to the Cuban people. But on the other hand, we think we have achieved very little in terms of changing the behavior of the regime in Cuba and the treatment of its people. Our concern is that they may be the biggest beneficiaries of all of this which promotes the continuance of that regime." 

Tillerson said that pressure on the Cuban government to implement democratic reforms "has been, in our view, largely removed now" after former President Barack Obama strengthened relations between the United States and Cuba in 2016. 

"I was down there not long ago and America has always felt that if it could do more business with folks it would pave the way for democracy," Corker said. "I do hope we end up with a policy that will cause the Cuban people themselves to reach their aspirations." 

New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall, a supporter of Obama's efforts, rattled off a host of business ventures now possible in Cuba after Obama's changes, including the introduction of Airbnb into the Cuban economy. 

"Do you agree we should continue these efforts or do you believe we should return to the failed policies of the Cold War?" Udall asked. 

"Well, what you have described is the sunny side of the relationship and it's all positive and it's great," Tillerson said. "There is the dark side though and that is Cuba has failed to improve it's own human rights record. What we have to achieve in approaching Cuba is if were going to sustain the sunny side of this relationship Cuba must begin to address the human rights challenges. Within the sunny side of the relationship there are troubling elements to us that bring the relationship into conflict with existing statute obligations. Are we inadvertently or directly providing financial support to the regime? Our view is, we are." 

Tillerson also said he supports efforts to improve internet access in Cuba, but hedged that the focus of the policy review is making sure the Cuban government does not financially benefit from increased U.S. involvement on the island. 

In late May, 55 senators from both parties signed on to a bill that would fully eliminate travel restrictions to the island. 

Cuban-American lawmakers Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart — who favor the elimination of what they see as concessions to the Cuban government — have been involved in the Cuba review in recent months. 

Friday's announcement will reportedly take place at the Manuel Artime Theater, a former church that is symbolic for Cuban exiles. 

Marco Rubio and Elizabeth Warren agree on one issue—federal flood insurance must change

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@alextdaugherty 

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren rarely see eye-to-eye on major policy issues but both agree the National Flood Insurance Program must be fixed. 

The program, run by FEMA, must be reauthorized by September 30 as part of the 2018 budget. Rubio and Warren, along with Sens. Bob Menendez, John Kennedy, Chris Van Hollen and Thad Cochran penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday outlining their plan to make federal flood insurance fiscally sound. 

"Powerful floods devastate communities across America every year," the op-ed reads. "After these catastrophic natural disasters, too many Americans find themselves facing a man-made calamity: a National Flood Insurance Program that overcharges and underdelivers for policyholders and for taxpayers. As members of the Senate Banking and Appropriations committees, which oversee flood insurance and provide federal disaster response, we plan to offer bipartisan landmark legislation to tackle systemic problems with flood insurance and to reframe our entire disaster paradigm." 

The proposal comes as the federal flood insurance program is billions of dollars in debt and still dealing with the financial impacts of major hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy, where homeowners said federal engineers were encouraged to lie about storm damage to limit federal insurance payouts.

Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo also introduced legislation relating to flood insurance earlier this year. His bill would allow non-primary residences and businesses to be eligible for the same flood insurance rates as primary residences.

“This bill is critical to South Florida, especially for residents of the Florida Keys that are in desperate need of affordable housing options," Curbelo said in a statement. "The Flood Insurance Fairness Act would ensure all Americans have access to affordable flood insurance by guaranteeing that all non-primary residences and business properties receive the same rates provided to primary homes under the National Flood Insurance Program.” 

Read the rest of the op-ed here.

 

June 05, 2017

Bill Nelson will fight Donald Trump over air traffic control privatization

Bill Nelson

@alextdaugherty

President Donald Trump threw his weight behind a proposal to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system on Monday, and a White House adviser called the multi-billion dollar effort “low-hanging fruit” that can get through Congress quickly.

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson doesn’t see it that way.

Nelson, up for reelection in 2018, is the top Democrat on the Senate committee which oversees the Federal Aviation Administration. He fought for years against proposals to hand the nation’s air traffic control system over to a private non-profit, which he argues will hurt smaller airports and recreational flights.

“The safety of the flying public should not be for sale,” Nelson said Monday. “Handing air traffic control over to a private entity partly governed by the airlines is both a risk and liability we can’t afford to take.”

Nelson’s opposition has been successful for years, as Democrats and Republicans from rural states fretted about privatization’s effect on small airports and recreational aviation. A privatization bill proposed by House Transportation chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., didn’t even make it to the House floor last Congress.

But President Trump, with Shuster at his side, pitched air traffic control privatization as a win for consumers on Monday, putting pressure on congressional Republicans to get on board.

“For too many years, our country has tolerated unacceptable delays at the airport, long wait times on the tarmac and a slowing of commerce and travel that costs us billions and billions of dollars in lost hours and lost dollars themselves,” Trump said at a White House speech touting the plan.

Read more here. 

November 09, 2016

After U.S. Senate defeat, Patrick Murphy taking time for himself

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@ByKristenMClark

Following his decisive loss to Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio on Tuesday night, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Patrick Murphy is keeping a low profile.

He's not doing any media interviews today, his campaign said. (The Herald/Times did request one.) The two-term Jupiter congressman has "no immediate plans" other than spending the next few days with family and friends, his campaign said.

After a hard-fought, 20-month campaign, advisers say Murphy was realistic about his odds and was prepared for Tuesday's outcome -- long indicated by consistent polls in Rubio's favor.

Murphy also knew that, regardless of the result, his life would change Tuesday, his campaign said: He'd either be a newly elected U.S. senator or he'd be on his way out as a public official.

Voters decided the latter would be Murphy's fate.

Photo credit: Jim Rassol / Sun Sentinel

Rubio's margin of victory: 716,833 votes

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@ByKristenMClark

While some expected Florida's U.S. Senate race to be relatively close at the end, Florida voters were decisive in re-electing Republican Marco Rubio on Tuesday.

In complete but unofficial results, Rubio's margin of victory was 8 percentage points -- 716,833 votes, to be precise, out almost 9.3 million cast.

Rubio outperformed president-elect Donald Trump -- who took Florida by about 120,000 votes out of almost 9.4 million cast -- while Rubio's Democratic challenger, Patrick Murphy underperformed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Rubio beat Murphy 52 percent to 44 percent, while Trump beat Clinton in Florida 49 percent to 48 percent.

MORE: Rubio returns to U.S. Senate

Murphy, a two-term congressman from Jupiter, won the majority of the vote in only nine of Florida's 67 counties -- most of them in reliably blue hotspots: Alachua, Gadsen, Leon, Orange, Osceola and St. Lucie counties, plus the Democratic stronghold of South Florida: Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach.

While Rubio, of West Miami, lost his home county to Murphy by 109,000 votes, Rubio easily won most of Florida's rural counties and two key metros: Tampa Bay and Jacksonville. In Florida bellwether Hillsborough County, Rubio won by just 2,900 votes, with stronger support in the surrounding counties. In Duval County, Rubio's advantage was more than 69,000 votes.

Murphy -- who will now exit Congress in January after representing the Treasure Coast and northern Palm Beach County for four years -- had a mixed bag in his moderate congressional district. (His redistricted seat went back in the red column Tuesday, won by Republican Brian Mast.)

He won in Palm Beach County by more than 61,000 votes and eked by in St. Lucie County with 3,300 more votes than Rubio. However, he lost Martin County to Rubio by more than 16,000 votes.

Polls had shown Rubio ahead in nearly all polls in the Senate race -- by various margins -- since he declared for re-election in June. Less than a handful had Murphy evenly tied with him.

Photo credit: Pedro Portal / Miami Herald

November 08, 2016

Marco Rubio easily keeps seat in U.S. Senate

2016 Election Senate Rubio

@JeremySWallace @KristenMClark @DavidOvalle305

Marco Rubio is headed back to the U.S. Senate with his prospects of another run for president intact.

Rubio defeated two-term Congressman Patrick Murphy, who couldn’t overcome poor name recognition or questions about embellishments on his résumé.

Tuesday’s outcome was not a surprise given Rubio never trailed in 47 consecutive public polls of the race since he jumped into the contest in June. Yet given that Rubio emphatically stated he would not run for re-election six months ago, the outcome was still improbable.

Rubio, flanked by his family, took the stage at his watch party shortly before 9 p.m. to the cheers of a raucous crowd inside a ballroom at Miami’s Airport Hilton

He said he talked to Murphy by phone. “He ran a great race.”

In his brief remarks, Rubio struck a optimistic tone, making no mention of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. He took a sharply different tact than Trump, his party’s standard bearer who campaigned with divisive rhetoric.

“America is going to be OK. We will turn this country around. I have faith. I know God is not done with America yet,” Rubio said, adding: “While we can disagree on issues, we cannot share a country where people hate each other because of their political affiliations. We cannot move forward as a nation if we can not have enlightened debates about tough issues."

More here.

Photo credit: Wilfredo Lee / AP