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.