Arson in Florida and the Shameful Sounds of Silence

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.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Florida law banning contracts for firms doing business in Cuba is temporarily blocked 

U.S. District Court Judge K. Michael Moore has issued a temporary injunction preventing the Florida government from enforcing the recently-passed law that prevents companies from bidding on state and local government contracts if they do business in Cuba or Syria, reports the Associated Press. The injunction was issued after Judge Moore heard arguments in the lawsuit by the Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht on Monday.

Odebrecht’s Miami-based subsidiary holds millions of dollars in contracts in Florida, and another division of the company is undergoing a project to expand and modernize the Cuban port of Mariel. Odebrecht claims that the law is unconstitutional because only the federal government has the power to set foreign policy. During the hearing, Judge Moore said, “If it’s foreign affairs, it’s foreign affairs. It isn’t as if there isn’t some precedent there.”

The law, which was set to take effect beginning July 1, would apply to state and local projects worth $1 million or more. All companies bidding for the contracts would have to certify that they do not have any economic links to Cuba or Syria.

U.S. Supreme Court decides not to review Cuba travel ban for professors

The Supreme Court decided Monday not to accept a challenge to a Florida law that restricts state colleges and universities from using state money to travel to countries on the U.S. State Sponsor of Terrorism list, including Cuba, leaving the law intact, reports the Miami Herald. The Florida university professors’ challenge to the 2006 Florida law argued that it set foreign policy, a power reserved for Congress. It was deemed unconstitutional in a 2008 ruling, but then-Governor Charlie Crist appealed and a lower court ruling was overturned.

Howard Simon, head of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the decision not to hear the case a “devastating blow” to Florida universities, adding:

The research is not going to end. It will just be done by universities elsewhere outside of Florida. It will keep us in an enforced state of ignorance…We benefit by knowing more. We don’t benefit by forced ignorance.

U.S. State Department increases technology funding for “democracy promotion” programs

The U.S. State Department has significantly increased funding for the technology distribution and development aspects of Cuba “democracy promotion” programs such as those run by USAID, reports the Miami Herald. An April 26 letter from the Department to Congress lists its plans for distributing the $20 million available for Cuba democracy programs in the fiscal year ending September 30. USAID’s Bureau of Latin America and the Caribbean will receive $4 million to develop a “digital democracy” program with the stated goal of expanding the use of technology already available on the island. $1.53 million will go to the State Department’s Western Hemisphere Affairs section for a program to increase Cubans’ access to uncensored information through what the letter refers to only as “long-distance training on basic information technology skills.”

According to the letter, funds will also go towards training activists to use social media, providing “material support” for Cuban human rights activists, independent journalists, and independent libraries. USAID’s Bureau of Latin America and the Caribbean will receive $500,000 to research future prospects for technology use in Cuba democracy programs.

Cuba’s government considers USAID’s program on the island to be subversive, and state newspaper Granma published an article criticizing the aid arguing that “The objective is not to benefit the Cuban people, but to reinforce individuals who back the policy of ‘regime change’ with access to technology, by facilitating Internet services and devices only to collaborators identified with that goal.”

Nick Miroff for the Global Post points to some of the contradictions inherent in U.S. technology initiatives in Cuba, noting the outcry from Cubans just last week as Google Analytics blocked its free service on the island due to U.S. sanctions.

Cuban dissident Darsi Ferrer will go to U.S. as a political refugee

Darsi Ferrer, a well-known Cuban dissident, will travel to the U.S. this month as a political refugee, EFEreports. According to the article, he hopes to reunite with family, which left Cuba in April, and settle permanently in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Ferrer indicated that he has already received approval from Cuba’s government to leave the country.  A doctor by profession, he hopes to continue practicing medicine in the U.S.

René González asks to serve rest of probation in Cuba

René González, the only one of five Cuban intelligence agents to complete his sentence,  is asking a federal judge to allow him to serve the rest of his probation in Cuba, reports the Associated Press. The papers filed by his attorney emphasize that González has followed all of the terms of his probation since he was released in October 2011. González has served 8 months of his three year probation. In this latest motion, he offered to renounce his U.S. citizenship to make it clear that he has no intention of remaining in or returning to the U.S., reports the Havana Times. His attorney said that he wishes to return to Cuba to be close to his wife and daughters.

Prominent Cuban-American businessmen sign “Commitment to Freedom” letter

A group of Cuban-American businessmen, both retired and active, signed a letter rejecting any effort to increase business ties with Cuba, reports EFE. In the letter, the group expresses its “wish to convey our great concern regarding the Castro regime’s deceptive campaign aimed at securing much-needed financial resources to prolong its iron grip over the people of Cuba.” The signers also criticized recent economic reforms in Cuba, calling them “cosmetic.” They include Manuel Jorge Cutillas, the former CEO of Bacardi; Nestor Carbonell, the former VP of international government affairs of PepsiCo; and Carlos Gutierrez, the former U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

More flights between Tampa and Havana

Island Travel & Tours, Ltd. announced that it will be offering nonstop service on Wednesdays between Tampa and Havana in addition to its weekly Sunday service, according to a press release. Bill Hauf, the company’s president, stated: “Currently all of our Sunday flights are sold out through the end of July. We are excited about this new additional service because this new Wednesday flight will also provide more options for group travel by Tampa Bay’s colleges, universities, religious groups, business organizations, cultural institutions, agricultural companies and many other organizations that can legally travel to Cuba.”

Record-breaking marathon swimmer begins Cuba to U.S. swim

Penny Palfrey, a world record holder for unassisted open water swims, has begun her journey from Cuba to the coast of the U.S., reports Reuters. Her effort follows last year’s two failed attempts made by American swimmer Diana Nyad and, like Nyad she will be swimming without a shark cage. Reports note that this stretch of water is extremely dangerous to cross because of undercurrents. Palfrey is accompanied by a boat with a crew of 16.

IN CUBA

PDVSA to invest $40 million in Cuban oil exploration, compliance of second rig with U.S. sanctions is questioned 
PDVSA, Venezuela’s national oil company, will invest $40 million to join in exploratory drilling for oil off the shores of Cuba. The company will begin drilling after the Malaysian company Petronas completes its own exploration. Petronas said that it expects to have results of its exploratory drilling by the end of July, reports the Associated Press. A map showing the blocs in Cuba’s Exclusive Economic Zone reserved by foreign oil companies is available here.

Following reports last week that a second rig, financed by Russia, is on its way to Cuba, experts this week questioned whether that rig complies with U.S. sanctions law which limits the amount of U.S. technology that can be used on rigs operating in Cuba, reports the Global Post. Jorge Piñon, an expert on Cuban oil exploration at the University of Texas, said that the rig, Songa Mercur, is loaded with U.S. technology, including five Caterpillar generators, General Electric mud pump motors, and cementing equipment made by Halliburton. That will likely leave Russian operator Zarubezhneft in violation of U.S. sanctions. According to Piñon, this could be a non-issue since Zarubezhneft is a Russian state oil company without any U.S. investments to safeguard.

Construction for Cayo Coco cargo port begins

Dredging has begun for the development of a 2-mile channel to the port of Casasa on Cayo Coco located in the province of Ciego de Ávila, reports Granma. This is one of the larger infrastructure projects taking place in Cuba this year. When the channel is completed, it will be 270 feet wide and 28 feet deep. In addition, it will able to accommodate cargo vessels of up to 2,400 tons and 300 feet in length. Such cargo vessels will supply jet fuel, fuel oil, construction supplies and food to the tourist resort in Jardines del Rey, located on the north-central coast of Cuba. Currently, the port of Casasa can only hold cargo vessels of up to 200 tons, reports Cuba Standard.

Outbreak of cholera in eastern province of Granma

Beginning in the middle of the week, an outbreak of cholera spread through Manzanillo, a city in the province of Granma, hospitalizing more than fifty and killing two, reports El Nuevo Herald. Cuban authorities in Manzanillo have declared the Hospital Celia Sánchez to be in a state of quarantine to prevent further spread of the illness. The hospital is facing overcrowding and a scarcity of the necessary medicines to treat cholera patients, and has asked hospitals in other municipalities for assistance, reports Café Fuerte.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba recalls ambassador to Paraguay in protest of Lugo’s impeachment

Cuba recalled its ambassador to Paraguay in protest of the impeachment of President Fernando Lugo, reports the Havana Times. Cuba’s government has classified Lugo’s removal from office as a coup. President Raúl Castro stated on Monday that “coups have returned to the continent, but disguised.” More news and analysis of recent events in Paraguay are available below in the Around the Region section.

Ricardo Alarcón visits Namibia and Angola

Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada, President of Cuba’s National Assembly, traveled to Namibia and Angola this week, reports Café Fuerte. While in Namibia, Alarcón expressed Cuba’s willingness to help with Namibia’s production of finished goods, in addition to purchasing raw materials, according to iNamibia. In Angola, Alarcón is set to meet with the Ministers of Education and Industry and Angola’s oil company SONANGOL, among other places, reports AllAfrica.

President of Belarus visits Cuba

Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, signed an agreement to provide Cuba with agricultural machinery during his official visit to Cuba this past Sunday, reports Cuba Standard.   President Lukashenko also denounced the embargo and encouraged the opening of diplomatic discourse between Cuba and the U.S., reports Russia Today.  During Lukashenko’s visit, Cuba’s Ministry of Light Industry and the Belarusian equivalent signed a memorandum of understanding regarding the modernization of agricultural machinery and the production of new household appliances in Cuba. Belarus’ bilateral trade with Cuba is valued at around $50 million.

Around the Region

News and analysis: Paraguay and the impeachment of President Lugo

The sudden impeachment of President Fernando Lugo and its aftermath have led to serious questions about democracy and constitutional rule in Paraguay and in the entire region. Critics have called the move a “congressional coup” and many countries have recalled their ambassadors and are refusing to recognize the administration of former vice-president Federico Franco, sworn in 24 hours after Lugo’s impeachment. Below, we provide sources of analysis on recent developments.

Congressional Leaders and LGBT Supporters Urge State Department Action to Stop Violence against LGBT Community in Honduras

In light of reports of continued violence against the LGBT community in Honduras, CDA joined with the Honduras Solidarity Network and LGBT leaders to circulate a letter drafted by Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO) among members of the House Equality Caucus to send to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This letter called upon the State Department to hold overseas U.S.-government agencies accountable for implementing President Obama’s directive that they “respond swiftly to abuses against LGBT persons” and to urge the Honduran government to investigate and resolve these crimes.

Congressman Polis’ press release, including a copy of the letter in English and Spanish, is available here.

Recommended Reading/Viewing

A Cruel and Unusual Record, Jimmy Carter, New York Times Op-Ed

“The United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights. Revelations that top officials are targeting people to be assassinated abroad, including American citizens, are only the most recent, disturbing proof of how far our nation’s violation of human rights has extended. This development began after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has been sanctioned and escalated by bipartisan executive and legislative actions, without dissent from the general public. As a result, our country can no longer speak with moral authority on these critical issues.”

How the U.S. keeps Cuba offline, Nick Miroff, Global Post

“Fear not, web-deprived Cubans. The US government has a new plan to breach the firewall of communist censorship and let free data flow through. First though, it needs to block your access to some really cool software. That was the scrambled message of the past week. First, Cubans found themselves barred from using Google Analytics — a free, web-traffic analysis tool — by the US trade embargo. A few days later, they learned that American officials are spending millions on new programs to boost “the free and decentralized flow of information” to the island.”

Cuban New Yorker, Lisandro Pérez

Cuban New Yorker is a new blog out- on Cuba, New York, and the intersections between the two cities, written by Lisandro Pérez, a Latin American Studies scholar. He writes: “Cuban New Yorker responds to my interest in sharing with an audience beyond academia my observations and reflections from the perspective of someone who knows about Cuba and encounters New York, both as a resident and as a scholar.”

A Final Note

CDA mourns the loss of Chris Norton, a long-time friend who reported on the war in El Salvador from 1984-1990 as a stringer for the Christian Science Monitor, Time Magazine, In These Times and other publications. Chris’ reporting led to a rare retraction by the New York Times in 1988 after he investigated and debunked a story by NYT journalist James Lemoyne alleging guerrilla atrocities. On October 31st, 1989 Chris survived a car bomb blast that killed ten and injured dozens at the FENASTRAS trade union federation office.  He died peacefully on June 22 at his home in Sebastopol, California.

(c) 2012 Center for Democracy in the Americas. All rights reserved.

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