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

April 27, 2012

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.

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Frustration or Rebellion? Cuba’s In or the Summit’s Out, Region Tells President Obama

April 20, 2012

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Last Sunday, the Sixth Summit of the Americas ended without a formal declaration but with the United States chastised and isolated by its regional allies.

Nearly everything has been said about the Summit – setting aside for a moment the Secret Service scandal – and nearly everyone has said it.  But a few comments are worth highlighting, a few observations worth repeating, and a few articles merit special mention.

Why does the Summit’s outcome even matter?  As the late columnist Robert Novak might have asked, ‘isn’t this just one more yack-a-thon hosted by and for the benefit of the ‘striped pants cookie pushers’ of the region’s various foreign ministries?”

Actually, no.  Time Magazine’s Tim Padgett called our attention to a pre-Summit report by the Inter-American Dialogue which makes this persuasive case that diplomatic dysfunction has its costs:

The United States and Latin America, after a decade of profound change, are increasingly going their separate ways. According to the report, without a rethinking of the relationship and resolution of three stubborn, long-standing problems—immigration, Cuba, and drug policy—the drift and distancing are likely to continue, potentially producing new tensions and risks for hemispheric affairs.

This Summit could have been known for progress on matters cited by the Dialogue or on bringing electricity to the region’s rural poor and coping with natural disasters, as Richard Feinberg suggested. Instead it got bogged down by the stale and counterproductive debate over whether the Summit should include Cuba.

Why does the Cuba issue matter?  With the curious exceptions of Canada and the United States, the hemisphere is united in its insistence that Cuba be allowed to participate in the Summit of the Americas.  The U.S. insistence on Cuba’s exclusion only calls attention to the failure of our policy, to use the embargo and diplomatic isolation to upend the Cuban system, in the name of fighting for democracy.  Read the reaction of the Los Angeles Times editorial board which wrote:

The policy of banning Cuba from the gathering of the hemisphere’s leaders for nearly 18 years is backfiring.  It hasn’t led to regime change any more than the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo has; it hasn’t persuaded President Raúl Castro or, before him, his brother Fidel to embrace democratic reforms…Instead, it has fueled frustration among Latin leaders.

Frustration or worse?  “I think this is a rebellion of Latin American leaders against the U.S.,” Bolivia’s president Evo Morales said.  Let’s not pretend the feelings, however, are simply harbored by the region’s ALBA bloc.

The leaders of Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia made it clear that they will not attend the next Summit, scheduled for Panama in 2015, without Cuba’s participation.   Colombia’s PresidentSantos emphatically called Cuba’s exclusion and the U.S. embargo “unacceptable,” as the Financial Times reported.  These are among our staunchest regional allies.

Why is this debate happening now?

President Obama tried suggesting that the region’s reaction to Cuba’s exclusion somehow amounted to Cold War baggage he had managed to set aside:

Sometimes I feel as if…we’re caught in a time warp, going back to the 1950s, gunboat diplomacy, and Yankees and the Cold War, and so forth, and not addressing the world we live.

But President Santos put the baggage of history back where it belonged.  “There is no justification for that path that has us anchored in a Cold War overcome now for several decades.”

Perhaps the justification is U.S. domestic politics.  Although President Obama denied it, the New York Times suggested the U.S. stance could simply be attributed not to substance but to cynicism; “by refusing to sign a statement that would have called for the next summit meeting to include Cuba, Mr. Obama avoided antagonizing some Cuban-American voters in Florida.”

Whatever the reason, as Richard Feinberg said, our current “Cuba policy entails real diplomatic costs and gives regional competitors a powerful emotional wedge issue.”

Our Cuba policy is not only a failure, but a distraction.  As the Inter-American Dialogue noted, we face a gap between the region’s arc away from the U.S. and our nation’s interests in addressing issues that matter; a gap that will simply broaden the longer we scold them and fail to listen what they’re actually trying to say and do.

And speaking of a good scolding:  Last June, when Secretary Clinton released the State Department’s “Trafficking in Persons Report,” the U.S. government took Colombia to task for its various failures to prevent women and girls from being subject to the sex trade in Latin America and offered eight policy recommendations for them to get right with the U.S.

The Summit’s conclusion was a powerful reminder of what can happen to our nation and its image in the region when we punish others for failing to live up to standards we do not meet ourselves.

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Flashback/Fast Forward: Obama, Cuban Docs, and the Summit of the Americas

April 13, 2012

As President Obama makes his way to Colombia for the Summit of the Americas – “to tout his trade record and convince millions of Hispanic voters back home he cares about the region,” as Reuters tartly reported – we found ourselves thinking back three years when he last attended this regional meeting.

At a concluding press conference, the president recounted what he learned about the activities of Cuban doctors in the region thanks to their nation’s commitment to “medical internationalism”:

One thing that I thought was interesting — and I knew this in a more abstract way but it was interesting in very specific terms — hearing from these leaders who when they spoke about Cuba talked very specifically about the thousands of doctors from Cuba that are dispersed all throughout the region, and upon which many of these countries heavily depend.

The Cubans have been helping nations around the world react to crises and natural disasters, and to meet their people’s primary care needs, since 1960. The achievements of this program -chronicled by scholars such as John Kirk, and non-governmental organizations like MEDICC -were well known outside the United States when President Obama heard about them in April 2009.

Following the earthquake in Haiti, however, when Cuban doctors already stationed there were the first to respond, became the backbone of the fight against cholera, and continued helping Haitians recover and build a new health care system long after many in the international community diverted their gaze, the full extent of Cuba’s commitment to public health outside its own borders was hard to ignore even in the United States.

With the president attending the 2012 Summit of the Americas, we have to ask this: Who benefits from his decision to continue a Bush-era policy of coaxing Cuban doctors to leave their medical missions and defect to the United States?

In 2006, the Bush administration started the “Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program” to encourage Cuban medical personnel saving lives internationally, most often located in rural areas or slums of the world’s poorest countries, to leave their posts. The Program promised special U.S. immigration rights for these Cuban doctors and health personnel, today numbering nearly 39,000. Although Cubans who reach the United States seeking asylum already enjoy preferential immigration status when they arrive, this program makes Cuban medical personnel eligible for parole abroad.

As Fox News Latino reported, the program was “the brainchild of Cuba-born diplomat Emilio González, director of the U.S. Citizen & Immigration Services from 2006 to 2008…a staunchly anti-Castro exile. He has characterized Cuba’s policy of sending doctors and other health workers abroad as ‘state-sponsored human trafficking’.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, more than 1,500 Cuban doctors and health care personnel received visas under the program issued by U.S. consulates in 65 countries by the end of 2010. The promise to enter our country at the head of our long immigration line to practice medicine in the United States is a powerful inducement, as Cubans devoted to working in the medical system freely admit. “You’d go, too, if you could triple your pay,” said Juan Bautista Palay, chief of physical therapy at Havana’s 10 de Octubre Hospital.

It would be bad enough if this program simply functioned as its authors intended, to undermine an appealing, humanitarian feature of the Cuban system, no matter what it meant to patients in the developing world. But the story gets worse.

Once Cuban doctors arrive, many are prevented from practicing. Sometimes, records substantiating their credentials are withheld by Cuba’s government. Others are disqualified from gaining residency because they were once members of the Cuban communist party.

Yes, as the Miami Herald reported without a trace of irony, “Questions about party membership remain on residence and citizenship application forms, as relics from the Cold War, when the United States deemed communism its chief enemy.”

For Cuban doctors lured here, it’s Lucy and the football meets the “Red scare.”

But most often, the reason Cuban doctors cannot hit the ground running as practicing physicians in the U.S. is because one piece of crucial information was withheld in the “parole promise”: they cannot hang out their shingles until they pass the three-part US Medical Licensing Exam, for which many US medical students bone up for years, through special and costly preparatory courses…not to mention the several thousand dollars in exam fees themselves. Other health professionals face similar hurdles.

President Obama should have ended this nonsense unconditionally three years ago after encountering the region’s reaction to Cuba’s doctors; or two years ago after their heroic work in Haiti made such a decisive difference; or even this month before attending the Summit in Cartagena. He might have even laid out a program of medical cooperation with Cuba, as our friend Dr. Peter Bourne recommended, to make the most of what Cuban doctors have to offer for the medically-underserved in this hemisphere. But he didn’t.

The next time the heads of government from the region gather at the Summit of the Americas, we expect Cuba’s to be among them.

By then, our government should stop the shameful -and we think un-American- practice of plucking Cuban doctors from the world’s poorest countries where are they are serving patients and doing so much good.

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Losing through intimidation

April 6, 2012

The political debate over U.S. policy toward Cuba has never been for the faint-hearted.  It’s always raucous, highly emotional, sometimes violent, often absurd, and now increasingly irrelevant.

The U.S. is castigated in the region and globally for the policy, and we’re increasingly marginalized – politically and economically – as allies and adversaries alike engage with Cuba.

What keeps otherwise intelligent and reality-based U.S. policy makers committed to something proven not to work?

Many are reluctant to urge reforms in our failed policy because of their honest objections to Cuba’s political system.  For others, Cuba is just not a priority.  Their states or Congressional districts aren’t affected.  Business interests are broadly reluctant to endorse controversial changes.  Defenders of the status quo spread huge donations to lock in political support for the embargo and travel ban.

Still others know that if they speak out, they will be castigated by some hardliners, intimidation in the service, we’re told, of supporting liberty in Cuba.  Ironic, perhaps, but not what the Founding Fathers intended.

Just this week, one critic asked:  “Has the Catholic Church become the new political pulpit for tyrants?”  Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who led a pilgrimage to the island for five planeloads of Cuban Americans, was labeled “elitist.” Rep. Kathy Castor was accused of having a “preference for dictators,” because she met with Ambassador Jorge Bolaños, Cuba’s Interest Section chief in Washington, and described as taking meetings with “Castro’s business partners,” leaders – we must point out – from the Tampa Florida business community in her own district.

Then, there’s the case of Carlos Saladrigas. He left Cuba at age 12 with his family in 1961, and organized demonstrations against John Paul II’s trip in 1998.   But he returned to Cuba for Pope Benedict’s visit.  At an event sponsored by the Catholic Church, attended by “professors, dissidents, clergy, bloggers, leftists (and) diplomats,” Saladrigas – according to today’s Washington Post – said socialism no longer works and urged a greater private sector opening for Cuba’s state run economy.

And yet, Saladrigas too was denounced, his legitimacy to speak on Cuba questioned, for seizing the opportunity to express views so contrary to the system in Cuba.

We were present for the Pope’s trip and know that many Cubans were inspired and nourished by his visit.  We think it’s important for Members of Congress to meet with the chief of the Cuban Interest Section, where they can directly communicate their feelings about issues ranging from commerce to human rights to the imprisonment of Alan Gross.  We strongly believe that trips to the island by Cuban American families can move reconciliation forward.  We also support the expression of views contrary to our own about these and other issues.

This kind of unfettered debate is core to the democratic ideal in the U.S.; our Founders wanted their fellow citizens and now ours to speak their minds without fear of retribution.

Unfortunately, intolerance of free discourse and new ideas is not unique to the Cuba debate (see #healthcare, #TheFed, #etc.).  On Cuba, rhetorical excesses occur on both sides – and we’ve been called out occasionally for committing them.  The issues alive in this debate are fundamental and emotional, and that’s true for nearly everyone who participates in it.

But the harder and more coarse the condemnations become, it’s tough to see this week’s exercise in intimidation as anything less than a tactic to get leaders on the Cuba issue to pull back and to prevent followers from becoming leaders.

Thankfully, it won’t work; and ultimately, it will backfire.  Support for the old policy is changing before our eyes, even as the stalwarts in Congress and elsewhere cling to the status quo.  Travel to Cuba is rising significantly.  Facilitated by President Obama, and led by Cuban Americans, travelers by the tens of thousands are seeing Cuba each month with their own eyes.   Some experience feelings of reconciliation or become determined to change the policy.  Others visit and don’t like what they see.

But no one we’ve encountered returns from Cuba wanting the drawbridges to be pulled up to prevent fellow citizens from having the same opportunity and the same freedom to reach their own conclusions about the island and U.S policy.  That’s good, because we need a respectful and broadminded debate about the right way for the U.S. to engage with Cuba.

We have faith that a discussion that is consistent with our ideals, based on the right to speak and not intolerance, will ensure that good sense finally prevails.

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