Arson in Florida and the Shameful Sounds of Silence

June 29, 2012

In April, arson destroyed the offices of Airline Brokers in Coral Gables.  It was a disgraceful act of domestic terror.  But it hasn’t incited the outrage you might expect.

Terrorism, you ask?  Well, yes.

Terrorism has been defined under U.S. law as the “unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”  Arson and the bombing of property used in interstate commerce are among those offenses.

This attack was not a random street crime.  “I am afraid it was intentional,” Vivian Mannerud, the owner said at the time, “because of the indignation over the pope’s visit.”

Airline Brokers was famously involved in arranging travel for 340 Cuban American pilgrims, led by Miami’s Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who went to Cuba in March to witness in Pope Benedict XVI’s visit with the island’s faithful.

It didn’t take long for law enforcement to confirm the worst.  The Coral Gables Fire Department said the fire was deliberately set.

According to the Miami Herald, “A K-9 dog trained to detect accelerants led investigators to three separate spots where the fire at the Airline Brokers Co. began, including an area where a shattered green bottle was found.  Investigators also found a disposable lighter in a doorway outside the southeast corner of the company’s ground-floor office at 815 Ponce De Leon Blvd.” At the beginning of June, investigators released FBI photos of a ‘vehicle of interest.’  Nearly a month has gone by and no suspects have been arrested or named.

This incident might have receded from public memory but for Archbishop Wenski.  Yesterday, he visited Airline Brokers’ temporary office to bless the facility.  He said “that although we do not hate those who perpetrated this deliberate act of arson and we forgive those who ‘trespass against us’,” that those responsible for the act had to be brought to justice.  “Coming here today,” he concluded, “is a gesture of pastoral solicitude, and of solidarity with victims of a crime.”

In contrast, hardliners in the U.S. Congress have done and said nothing to denounce the arson.

Think about that.  Senator Marco Rubio and Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, and David Rivera – who condemn Cuba and its false designation on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List; who use incendiary rhetoric to accuse those who travel to the island of ‘filling the Castro’s coffers’ –have been conspicuously silent about this act of domestic terror visited upon a constituent’s business in their own State.

What about Bill Nelson, Florida’s other Senator?  If you visit his official website (and scroll down), you will find a list of his accomplishments dating back from his service as Florida Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner, and Fire Marshal (no, not kidding).  He earned, he says, top rankings in insurance fraud arrests and convictions, and mounted aggressive investigations of church arson fires.

We gave Senator Nelson’s office the chance to respond to an email asking for comment about the arson at Airline Brokers and heard nothing back.  No surprise.  Arson may be in his sweet spot, but speaking truth to power?  Not so much.  It’s an election year.

In a statement released today, Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFÉ) urged elected officials “to denounce this act of terrorism, no matter the ideology or political position of the victim or the perpetrator…and call publicly for total cooperation with the authorities in the identification and capture of the author or authors of this callous and cowardly attack.”

Someone is protecting the identity of whoever tossed that piece of pavement stone through the window at Airline Brokers and lit the fires that burned the business.  But they’re not telling; and apart from the stand-up citizens who are speaking out, no one representing the people of Florida really seems to care.

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Haiku Hype: The Flutter over Fidel’s Twitter-Length Reflections

June 22, 2012

Whoa, Fidel Castro in the age of Twitter.

Headlines from Miami to London sound the alert.  “Fidel Castro leaves people guessing as he writes cryptic, Haiku-like notes.”  As the Miami Herald put it:

“In cryptic paragraphs of never more than 65 words, the former Cuban president has written about yoga poses, edible plants, a criticism by a Chinese leader who died 15 years ago and a former leader of communist East Germany who died even further back.”

Despite more contemporary concerns –such as this week’s meeting of bloggers in Cuba or the report that U.S. sanctions prevent Cubans from using Google analytics—it is no surprise that this development made news.  What Fidel Castro says and how he communicates has been engaging some and enraging others since before the creation of the computer, the fax machine, or the U.S. embargo.

According to Lars Schoultz, political scientist and renowned Cuba scholar, the U.S. government has been tracking what Fidel Castro thinks and says since 1947 when he was in college, sixty-five years.  That is longer than the time period extending from Morse to Marconi, from the invention of the telegraph to the invention of radio.

This preoccupation with Castro’s communications skills intensified after the revolution.

In 1959, as Schoultz records in his classic history on U.S.-Cuba relations, “That Infernal Little Cuban Republic,” the U.S. Embassy in Havana described one of his appearances as follows:

“Castro in his standard uniform of rumpled fatigues, radiating health and boundless energy, hunched over the table as he talks, waving his arms and hands, with the eternal cigar always at hand.  Words pour from him like a ceaseless torrent.  He appears literally capable of talking forever, on any subject under the sun.”

The volume of words was astonishing.  “This is, after all, the man who gave the longest speech in the history of the U.N. General Assembly,” Joshua Keating observed in his foreign policy blog.  But, of course, the effort to overthrow Castro and the Cuban system stemmed not from how much he said –or how he said it – but from his commitment to revolution and his resistance to the will of the U.S.

What followed has been decades of U.S. sanctions, and division between both countries, a collision between Cuba’s immutable faith in its right to self-determination and the immoveable desire of U.S. policy to upend its system.

Reporters inside Cuba tell us that Cubans are genuinely baffled by the former president’s messages on the Moringa tree, the cosmos, and yoga, published after his most recent full-length treatise on the use of drones by President Obama.

That’s probably right.  This interest is clearly shared by the boo-birds in Miami who’ve waited so long for the embargo to bring Cuba to its knees that they are now reduced to snickering about Fidel Castro’s twitter length pronouncements.

One “Miami analyst” said the former president needs to stay in the limelight.  “Like a mediocre starlet of cheap and superficial shows, [he] needs to feel like he’s in the center of the spotlight.”  Prof. Jaime Suchliki, Director of Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, sniffs, “Evidently he does not feel coherent enough to write longer pieces.”

If the “Cuba wars” are now being waged with exchanges of snark and sarcasm, we suppose that’s progress.  But, after 65 years, if we’re still worrying about how Fidel Castro, Cuba’s former president is expressing himself, we’d humbly suggest that the policy of not talking to the current president of Cuba about matters that actually concern us merits reexamination.

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Cold Warriors in the Congress and the lessons of overreach

June 15, 2012

Finally, they overreached.  All too often, Congress’s Cold Warriors thwart changes in U.S.-Cuba policy and obstruct U.S. relations with Latin America – always with “red menace” rhetoric (think Obama and “appeasement”) at the ready. Few stand up to oppose them, which is costly to our national interest and the U.S. image in the region.

Consider the torment of Mari Carmen Aponte.  She was confirmed this week as U.S. ambassador to El Salvador after years of obstruction. A Washington lawyer by training, a Hispanic activist born in Puerto Rico, she had ample qualifications to serve as Washington’s representative in San Salvador.

At the outset her nomination was stalled in the Senate due to decades’ old allegations about her relationship – that ended almost 20 years ago -with an man accused of being a spy for Cuba’s government. After months of delay and politically-charged accusations, President Obama gave her a recess appointment that lasted through the end of 2011.  Until a cloture vote ended debate in the Senate this week, her nomination was given up for dead.

During her tenure in El Salvador, she built bridges to political figures and civil society leaders across that polarized society’s political spectrum. She hosted President Obama’s visit to El Salvador and another by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Unlike ambassadors in previous decades, she is fluent in Spanish. Despite her interim appointment, Mari Carmen Aponte was effective, and she was applauded by Salvadorans, left and right.

And yet, the Cold Warriors played her nomination like a cat toy.They ignored  her qualifications, her performance, and the centrality of the U.S.-El Salvador relationship – because they have an exaggerated sense of ownership of over U.S. policy, they oppose our relationship with El Salvador’s progressive left government and, frankly, because they could.

Finally, a political light bulb was illuminated over the heads of United States Senators with electricity provided by 400,000 voters in Florida of Puerto Rican descent.The obstructers, who, in their minds, stood on principle, suddenly adopted the “principle” of flexibility.  Her nomination carried by a 62-37 margin, just enough to beat a filibuster. It should come as no surprise that Senator Marco Rubio of Florida switched sides and supported her to avoid undermining Latino relations in the Sunshine State in a very important presidential election year.

The Cold War Warriors will undoubtedly be back – attacking the State Department for giving Cubans visas to visit the U.S., attacking travel to Cuba, castigating Cardinal Ortega and the Catholic Church for negotiating with President Castro, raising alarms about security threats posed by the ALBA countries – because that is what they do.

They’re not always wrong.We share their concern for Cuban human rights activists recently detained in Cuba for their testimony phoned in from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, one of whom was allegedly beaten, and are deeply concerned by reports at the deteriorating health of Alan Gross.

But they remain wrong about the big picture: wrong about the U.S. embargo against Cuba, wrong about engagement with nations with which we disagree, wrong about bullying nominees in pursuit of their own narrow political interests.

It’s great that someone had the good sense to remind Latinos in Florida that an eminently qualified nominee who shares their Puerto Rican heritage was being denied an appointment as ambassador by a willful minority that is still re-litigating the Cold War a generation after the Berlin Wall came down.

Let’s hope the light bulb stays on as a reminder that the best way to respond to people trying to intimidate you using really dated and foolish arguments is to stand up against them.

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6th Anniversary edition: Arson, Oil, Economic Reform, and Supporting the Cardinal

June 8, 2012

This week, when you read the news summary—and our analysis of the news about oil drilling in Cuba, economic reform, attacks on travel in Congress, and attacks on Cardinal Ortega on Radio Marti – don’t forget how it all came together.

The Cuba Central News Team travels to Cuba, takes Members of Congress to the island, does the research and the translation, gets the access and asks the right questions, in order to get the reporting  right….on Cuba and developments in U.S. policy in Washington.

We deliver this package week after week, every Friday, before we close up and head home for the weekend.  We deliver the news and we don’t pull punches when talking about the need to reform Cuba policy and normalize relations.

Cuba Central is a project of the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) – a non-profit, non-governmental organization based here in DC.  We take no government money, of course, but instead depend on the generosity of people like you, who appreciate what we do and share our love for the power of the written word and even more powerful ideas.

In a little over a week our organization is celebrating its sixth anniversary.  In the spirit of that milestone, we are asking you to join with us, even if you can’t be here in person to raise a glass, by supporting our work.

If you like the work we do – and you want us to continue delivering the news to you each week in the way that only we can do it – please consider making a donation to CDA today.

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Deportations for Visiting Cuba?

June 1, 2012

It must be “Kick the Weak Week” in the U.S. Congress.

How else could one explain why Representative David Rivera’s bill, to rescind the residency status of Cubans living in the U.S. if they visit the island, could receive the dignity of a hearing in the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Enforcement Policy?

This is a uniquely bad piece of legislation.

Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans who arrive in the U.S. are allowed to remain in the country and can request residency a year after their arrival.  Following this period, they qualify for the liberty –denied almost all U.S. citizens— to visit Cuba freely under the rights restored by President Obama for unlimited family travel.

Rivera – like other hardliners – opposes all travel by anyone to Cuba and has tried various tactics in recent years to stop Cuban Americans from visiting the island.  Last August, he introduced legislation to revoke the residency status of any Cuban who returns to Cuba after receiving political asylum and residency in the United States.

As Rivera unapologetically describes it, “My legislation simply says that any Cuban national who receives political asylum and residency under the Cuban Adjustment Act, and travels to Cuba while still a resident, will have their residency status revoked.”

This sets up a horrible choice for these Cubans living in the U.S.  As Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group explained to the Subcommittee, it would “force all Cuban immigrants who want to maintain stable legal status in the United States to give up visiting family in Cuba.”

The group Rivera is targeting is significant.   About 400,000 family visits take place each year.  As Alvaro Fernandez reported in Progreso Weekly, “I asked one of the executives who charters flights to Cuba what percentage of persons would be affected by H.R. 2831. His answer was a startling almost 50% of persons who travel to Cuba are not yet U.S. citizens.”

What is the justification for a law that would stop hundreds of thousands of Cubans from physically being in contact with members of their family in Cuba?

Rivera and his allies make a series of claims that the Cuban Adjustment Act is being abused and they are trying to save it by stopping Cubans living in the U.S. from visiting Cuba.

In his testimony, Rivera said “Increasingly, Cuban-Americans are citing family reunification to justify travel that in reality more closely resembles common tourism and other unauthorized travel involving everything from plastic surgery to fifteens parties and weddings, to even sexual tourism.”

He went on to claim “In many cases, those Cubans traveling are also recipients of U.S. taxpayer-funded welfare programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Food Stamps, public housing and cash assistance.  In these cases, U.S. taxpayers are actually subsidizing travel to a country that has been designated a sponsor of terrorism by our government.”

Mauricio Claver-Carone of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC advised the Subcommittee in his testimony that some of these individuals were committing immigration fraud saying that Cubans who returned to the island to visit their families could not have come to the U.S. as legitimate refugees from oppression.

This is not about protecting the Cuban Adjustment Act.  It’s not in any danger of repeal.  Nor is this about subsidizing travel to Cuba with Social Security funds; of course, naturalized Cuban-Americans can use their benefits to pay for Cuba travel anytime.  It will come as no surprise that Congressman Rivera himself on his webpage offers to help any senior citizen in his district to determine their Medicare eligibility, and never once refers to this program as “welfare.”

No.  This is a travel ban.  It is simply another backdoor attempt to stop people, any people, from traveling to Cuba.  The targets in this round are entirely vulnerable:  migrants seeking refuge in the U.S.  By definition, they’re not registered voters and they’re mostly powerless, so it’s pretty easy to kick the weak, call them welfare recipients and fraudsters, and threaten them with deportation for the simple and decent act of trying to visit their families.

It’s a travel ban using a pretty heavy stick.  As Rep. Lofgren said, it “turns the act of travel to Cuba into a deportable offense.” She added:

No matter what the reason for stepping foot in Cuba, you lose your status. If you go to visit family members you haven’t seen in years, you lose your status. If you go to attend a funeral or donate a kidney to a dying relative, you lose your status. If you go to meet with Cuban dissidents with the aim of transitioning Cuba to a democracy, you lose your status.

Fortunately, Rep. Lofgren was not alone in her opposition to the bill.  Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, expressed particularly powerful views in his testimony before the panel.   Working the case from the outside were members of CAFÉ, the newly formed Cuban American organization, which wrote the Subcommittee and urged them to defeat the bill.  Progreso Weekly has issued an action alert urging opponents to make their views known to policy makers as well.  Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas protested the bill in an interview with EFE.  Anya Landau French editorialized against it in the Havana Note.

Ideally, these efforts and others like them will prevent the bill from being enacted.  The legislation is unjust, its aim is to divide families, it is using strong-armed tactics against a weak population that is unrepresented in the U.S. Congress, and it won’t realize its goal – to stop travel and thereby undermine the Cuban system.   But that won’t stop the hardliners from trying.

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