Florida’s Foreign Policy and the eternal cynicism of the sunshine mind

In Florida, relations with Cuba are serious business.  Ask Miami Marlin’s manager Ozzie Guillen, publicly shamed and forced to apologize to save his job for talking about Fidel Castro’s longevity.

Or worse, ask Airline Brokers Company, a Coral Gables-based travel provider that recently helped fly 340 pilgrims to Cuba for Pope Benedict’s visit.  Their office “went up in flames” in a suspicious fire this morning that has drawn the attention of federal investigators, according to CBS Miami.

Then, there’s the case of Florida’s Governor Rick Scott who has just announced –as this edition of the Cuba Central News Blast went to press – that he will sign House Bill 959, the State and Local Government Relations with Cuba and Syria Act, to stop municipalities and state agencies from doing business with companies that are engaged in business dealings with the two countries.

While yesterday, Scott was telling Floridians he was still reviewing the legislation, he’s now clearly aligned himself with the forces who fashion Florida’s own foreign policy.

To be clear, this bill has nothing to do with the tragic and brutal civil war in Syria.  As the Miami Herald reported, Florida’s State Board of Administration created a list of companies in Florida that could be affected by the bill. There were 238 firms with business ties to Cuba.  Only “a handful” had ties to Syria.

In fact, this is about one company, Odebrecht, a Brazilian conglomerate, with engineering and construction projects across the world.  Odebrecht is now modernizing the Cuban container port at Mariel, west of Havana, under an $800 million contract with Cuba’s government. Its Coral Gables-based subsidiary, Odebrecht USA, as the South Florida Business Journal reported, has conducted major projects in South Florida, including work at the Miami International Airport and the Port of Miami.

Odebrecht’s ties to projects in Cuba and Florida have enraged a variety of political actors whose allegiance to the embargo and Florida’s foreign policy is intense and limitless. For example, Capitol Hill Cubans wrote about them in a piece titled “How Odebrecht Abets Castro’s Repression.”  Even a Tea Party affiliate said, “We usually don’t comment on local and state politics — but how could Odebrecht continue to be awarded Miami-Dade contracts (to this day) despite its partnership with the brutal Castro dictatorship (since at least 2009)?”

So, legislation was introduced in December of 2011 to force a choice for Odebrecht and firms like it between working in Cuba and working in Florida, with one supporter saying “tax dollars should not continue subsidizing the tyrannical regimes of Cuba and Syria.”

It’s a nice slogan, but experts say the law is plainly unconstitutional.  In June 2000, in a case titled Crosby v. National Foreign Trade Council, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 against a Massachusetts law restricting state purchases from companies doing business in Burma (see an explanation of the case here). The Court, ruling 9-0, found the state measure was preempted by sanctions enacted by the U.S. Congress.  Massachusetts could not have its own foreign policy.

The constitutional argument didn’t seem to trouble the Florida law’s sponsors.  One wrote Governor Scott urging him to sign the bill using language eerily reminiscent of America’s great constitutional conflicts.  “Florida has the right,” Senator Rene Garcia said “to exercise its constitutional sovereignty.”

Clif Burns, a lawyer specializing in export control and economic sanctions in the Washington, D.C., office of Bryan Cave, calls the Florida statute “an open-and-shut case. The same logic that applies in Crosby would work to invalidate the Florida legislation.  It punishes acts under Florida law that are permissible under U.S. law, and that is completely illegal under the ruling of that case.”

Others are concerned by the economic consequences posed by the bill’s enactment.

Jake Colvin, Vice President for Global Trade issues with the National Foreign Trade Council, told Cuba Central, “Not only is it likely unconstitutional based on (Crosby), but it’s a looming disaster for Florida’s business reputation internationally.”

The Florida Chamber of Commerce agreed saying in a statement “our members remain concerned about the constitutionality of this bill, as well as the message it sends to our major trading partners.”

A Bradenton Herald editorial said the legislation would “maul Florida’s economy,” and repeated claims that Canadian companies would simply stop investing in the state “for fear they might get hit by this.”  Brazil, Florida’s other major international trading partner, is reported to have registered complaints about the bill directly with the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“If the sponsors had any intellectual honesty,” said Bob Kerrigan, an attorney in Pensacola Florida, and advisory board member of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, “they would be frank about the impact this will have of discouraging big business from moving to Florida. It’s just the latest chapter in the myopic self-interest of anti-Cuba hardliners prevailing over the best interests of the citizens of Florida.”

Indeed.  At the end of the day, Governor Scott, who recently signed a proclamation declaring Florida World Trade Month and crediting global trade with creating nearly a quarter-million jobs, decided to sign an unconstitutional law no matter the effect on Florida’s economy.

At the end of the day, cynicism ruled.  Cuba is, after all, serious business.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

After Summit repudiation, Obama maintains conditions on Cuba participation

Roberta Jacobson, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, has re-affirmed the U.S. position that Cuba should not participate in the next Summit of the Americas, to be held in Panama in 2015, without democratic reforms, EFE reports. In statements before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Latin America, in response to a question by Rep. David Rivera (FL-25) Jacobson stated: “Until there is a deep democratic change, we don’t believe that they fulfill the conditions to participate. But we will have to face that when the moment arrives.” Jacobson refused to say whether the U.S. would boycott he Summit if Cuba were included, saying “What I can’t do is promise something in the name of the President, but I can say, definitely, that if nothing has changed in Cuba, our position will not change either.”

Jacobson’s remarks following the Summit are available here.

Cuban diplomats in Washington will host émigrés for talks on U.S. policy toward the island

The Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. will hold a gathering this Saturday of Cuban émigrés to discuss improved relations between Cuba and its communities abroad, as well as relations between the U.S. and Cuba, reports the Miami Herald. The event is being held as Cuba’s government has relaxed its view toward Cubans who have left the island. In an interview last week, Ricardo Alarcón, President of Cuba’s National Assembly, stated:

Now things have changed a lot…nearly half a million Cubans living abroad visit us each year. The vast majority of Cuban emigrants have normal relations with their country of origin.

The U.S. State Department has approved a visa for Josefina Vidal, director of the North American Department of Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to travel to the United States and to participate in the event, Café Fuerte reports. Vidal was formerly the First Secretary of the Interests Section when she was forced to leave the country in 2003 following allegations of espionage against her husband. Responding to questions about the visa, State Department spokesman William Ostick said:

Contrary to what the Cuban government does, interfering with the relations of the U.S. diplomats with civil society in Cuba, we do not impede contact between their officials and Cubans living in this country… [the visit] could have positive results through her interaction with public opinion.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen opposed the granting of the visa, stating:

The timing of this visa request is particularly suspicious and problematic as it would permit this official to attend a propaganda and intelligence-gathering event hosted by Cuba’s Interests Section in Washington, DC. We already know that attendees will be asked to provide photos and fill out questionnaires, which surely will be sent directly to Cuba’s intelligence apparatus, seriously jeopardizing U.S. national security. And now, with State’s permission, the regime might have the luxury of having one of its chief operators work the guest list to sleuth up more information.

Cuba complains that guns in luggage checked in at MIA were not stopped

The U.S. State Department has confirmed that Cuba sent two formal complaints about separate incidents in which Cuban authorities detected guns in regular luggage originating from Miami International Airport, The Miami Herald reports. Cuban officials have reportedly detected six such incidents this year alone. State Department spokesperson William Ostick, however, responded that the State Department “ha[s] not been informed of any other incidents.”

According to Cuban authorities, five handguns were found when arriving luggage was X-rayed in Havana, and a sixth was found in Holguín. It was not known if, as required by the Transportation Security Administration, the weapons that arrived in Cuba had been declared to the airline in Miami.  On international flights, any guns declared must also be accompanied by an export license from the U.S. State Department, according to regulations.

New group of Cuban Americans opposes hard line policy toward Cuba

A new group of Cuban Americans favoring relations with Cuba’s government has officially formed in Washington, DC. The group, Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFE), includes Cuban Americans from Florida, Illinois, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, and Kentucky. Recently, they met with members of the U.S. Congress, the State Department, and the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. The group said in their announcement:

During our visits with congressional offices we underlined the very important message that the Cuban-American community is not monolithic and that many voices exist within this community that favor a policy of more engagement with Cuba, including the end to the travel ban for all U.S. citizens.

In all of the offices we visited, including that of Senator Marco Rubio, we emphasized that we do not feel represented by Cuban Americans who currently hold positions as representatives and senators in Congress. We categorically reject any attribution of said members to speak on the behalf of our community as a whole.

Their full statement is published in Along the Malecón.

5-day campaign to “Free the Five” ends with march on White House

International activists joined together from April 17-21 in Washington to hold a series of events calling for freedom for the remaining members of the Cuban Five, Cuban agents who were convicted in 1998 for spying against the United States.  Activists lobbied Congress and held various educational events. The campaign culminated with a march on the White House, in which participants carried signs that said “Obama, Give Me Five.” Some participants were bused in from New York and other cities.  A video of the protest is available from Telesur here.

IN CUBA

Cuba to make significant shift towards private sector production in the next five years

Esteban Lazo Hernández, a member of Cuba’s Politburo, indicated the government’s intention that nearly 50% of the island’s GDP will be generated from the non-state sector within the next five years, Reuters reports. Hernández stated: “Today, almost 95% of GDP is produced by the state. Within four or five years between 40% and 45% will result from different forms of non-state production.”

According to the article, Lazo is regarded as one of the party’s top ideologues, and he argued that the increased revenues coming from private business taxes would help the Cuban government to transition toward market socialism. An unnamed Cuban economist stated:

Such a shift means not just tiny mom-and-pop operations and small businesses such as restaurants and hostels, but mid-sized companies operating as cooperatives and individually owned.

Reforms have continued advancing on the island, including the spreading impact of the legalization of the sale of private property.  State newspaper Granma reported that in the first quarter of the year, 8,390 private sales of automobiles and 2,730 private real estate transactions took place, EFE reports.

Cuban cuentapropistas to march beside state workers in May 1st celebrations

The growing population of self-employed Cubans will join state workers for annual labor day celebrations in Cuba, reports EFE.  Raúl Castro relaxed regulations on self-employment in 2010 and the number of self-employed Cubans has grown quickly since then, currently numbering over 300,000 according to recent government reports.

45,000 Cubans receiving water from tanks in face of drought

About 45,000 people in Havana are currently receiving drinking water distributed by water tank trucks due to persistent drought on the island, EFE reports. Daily water production in Cuba falls short by an average of about 200,000 cubic meters (52.8 million gallons), affecting up to 800,000 of the capital city’s 2 million inhabitants.

The situation is aggravated because about half of the island’s drinking water gets lost in the distribution process due to the poor condition of the distribution infrastructure and of home water faucets, state newspaper Tribuna de La Habana reports.

Cuba arrests top British executive in continuing corruption case

Cuban authorities have arrested a second executive of Coral Capital Group Ltd., a British investment fund under a continuing corruption investigation on the island, Havana Times reports. Chief operation officer Stephen Purvis has been implicated in the investigation which is looking into bribery of government officials by foreign partners.

Amado Fakhre, the company’s CEO, was arrested in October 2011. The investigation is part of Cuba’s anti-corruption campaign, which has also seen actions against two Canadian trading firms in the last year, Tokmakjian Group and Tri-Star Caribbean.

Investor sees earnings drop from lower nickel prices

Sherritt International Corp, a Canadian firm with mining interests in Cuba, has seen its first quarter revenue for 2012 drop sharply as a result of lower nickel prices and higher costs, The Globe and Mail reports.

The company is Cuba’s largest foreign private investor, and most of its by-weight nickel sales and oil revenue are from Cuba, the Cuba Standard reports. Last year, nickel prices averaged $11.73 per pound; this quarter that number fell to $8.66/pound. The average price for cobalt was down to $14.10/pound, from $17.55/pound one year ago. Increases were seen in oil and gas revenue, up to $82.2 million from last year’s $70.5 million, and coal revenue also saw a slight increase.

Around the Region:

“Pulling back the curtain on U.S. drug demand”

Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, issued a statement yesterday addressing the current debate around drug legalization, citing the need to move toward reducing domestic drug consumption if the U.S. wants drug-related violence in Latin America to decrease. She wrote:

We must pull back the curtains on the false debate between legalizing drugs and current drug policy. The real answer lies in our ability to aggressively reduce the U.S. demand for illegal drugs… Latin-American leaders are rightly outraged that their citizens continue to suffer because of America’s drug habits.

The entire text of the release is available here.

Dedication of intersection for Archbishop Romero

Last weekend, an intersection in Los Angeles was dedicated to Archbishop Oscar Romero, the beloved human rights and peace advocate who was assassinated while giving Mass during the Salvadoran Civil War, the Los Angeles Times reports.  At the naming ceremony, which took place at the intersection of Pico Blvd. and Vermont Blvd., many invoked the words of Archbishop Romero: “If they kill me, I will be reborn in the Salvadoran people.” Salvadorans in Los Angeles are a prominent ethnic group in the city and are hoping to gain more recognition and claim a local area for their community.

Questioning role of ‘criminal groups’ in Bajo Aguán, Honduras

InSight Crime reports on the complexities of the current situation in Bajo Aguán, Honduras. According to InSight, a fresh round of violent attacks has led to questions about the extent to which organized crime is to blame for the renewed violence.

Peasant movements have argued that the land now occupied by palm oil plantations is rightfully theirs, and have been carrying out occupations. Activism on the part of the peasant organizations has led to clashes with the business sector in the area and security forces, and several farmers have been killed.

InSight reports that with regards to the gunmen responsible for recent violence, different local news sources describe them as drug traffickers, guards hired by agribusiness giant DINANT, or as armed farmers, and that news sources often confuse and conflate the relationships between these actors. The article concludes that the Honduran military, business sector, and peasant movements have all been attacked and subject to violence, and that it continues to be unclear when this will end.

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

Wanted — A New Cuba Policy, Rajan Menon, Huffington Post

“America’s Cuba policy has three distinctive aspects. First, though Bill Clinton and Barack Obama changed it at the margins, it has been remarkably consistent, regardless of who occupies the White House. Second, it has lasted for half a century despite the utter failure to achieve its declared purpose: producing fundamental political change in Cuba. Third, our closest allies, Canada, the European Union (EU), and Japan have rejected its premises and practices.”

New oil spill plan needed, Sun Sentinel

“There’s little debate that a major oil spill off the coast of Cuba could be a disaster for Florida. What’s up for more serious discussion are plans to contain the spill, and to minimize the ecological damage from an oil spill reaching our shores.”

Oldest former MLB player turns 101 in Cuba, Associated Press

“Conrado Marrero, the oldest former player in U.S. Major League Baseball, turns 101 in Cuba, still recalling his glory days.”

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