River(as) of Cash

There is no bigger supporter of democracy or free and fair elections in the U.S. Congress than Representative David Rivera (FL-25).  You don’t need to ask him.  He’ll tell you.

In April, he condemned President Santos of Colombia for discussing how Cuba could be admitted to the next Summit of the Americas, saying “I think it’s a very dangerous, slippery slope that we get into if presidents start talking about redefining democracy.”

In June, he honored the Cuban American Patriots and Friends for their efforts in favor of a free and democratic Cuba and presented them with a flag flown over the United States Capitol

In July, he denounced President Obama for dismissing Venezuela as a security threat and told him in a letter he signed to “recant” his statement for “all nations who cherish freedom and democracy.”

In August, he posed for a picture with The Assembly of the Cuban Resistance, in conjunction with the International Republican Institute and his allies in Congress, to salute “Pro-Democracy Movements in Totalitarian States.”

Wait for it….

But this week, Rep. Rivera has been implicated in an election scandal for trying to rig the Democratic primary in his Congressional District so that he could face a weaker opponent in the November election.  Did someone say, free and fair?

Here’s how one news organization put it: “Congressman David Rivera of Miami-Dade, already the target of a federal tax evasion probe, may face more scandal, and possible criminal charges, after an investigation by CBS4′s News Partner, The Miami Herald.”

Florida held its Congressional primaries on August 14th.  Rep. Rivera won his party’s nomination for reelection and Joe Garcia got the Democratic nod to run against him.  To win, however, Mr. Garcia unexpectedly faced a newcomer in his primary, Justin Lamar Sternad, who was employed as a front desk clerk at a hotel.  Even more unexpectedly, Mr. Sternad was able to finance 11 targeted campaign mailers.  How did he get the resources?

The Miami Herald says Mr. Rivera funneled the money to pay for a “sophisticated mail campaign” that campaign vendors say he orchestrated.  One of them, a former FBI agent named Hugh Cochran, said that Rivera asked him to create a voter list that was then used in the mailers by Sternad’s campaign for a total cost of $43,000.  The funds for this effort, at times delivered in envelopes stuffed with hundred dollar bills, were not reported, as required by law, before the primary on August 14.   One recipient said, “I never saw so much cash.”

Sternad’s de facto campaign manager was a campaign operative, Ana Alliegro.  In her Twitter account, she describes herself as “Republican Political Guru and Conservative Bad Girl,” arguably an odd choice to run a Democratic campaign. The Herald reports that she also made cash payments for mailers going out to voters from Sternad’s campaign.

One election law practitioner we consulted wanted to learn more about what is being investigated, but theorized that if a candidate was ‘secretly’ funding a federal campaign he might be exceeding election law contribution limits.

As expected, Mr. Rivera “strenuously denied the allegation” and the Herald also carried the obligatory “declined comment” from one of the mail vendors.  But this looks awfully bad.  The FBI and the Miami-Dade police are investigating.  As the Herald reported:

A candidate or conspirator who knowingly and willfully “falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact” in a federal election can face up to five years in prison, according to federal law.

Given his rhetoric, this leaves Rep. Rivera in a criminally exposed, if not a terribly awkward position.  So, we’ll close by quoting Ms. Alliegro from her tweet dated August 16th:

“Those that live in glass houses should not throw stones :-)”


Report says OFAC not granting renewals for people-to-people licenses

Organizations seeking renewal of  people-to-people Cuba travel licenses have recently reported that the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is unresponsive to their applications and slow at granting renewals, according to a piece by Ellen Creager for the Detroit Free Press. She writes that almost no organizations that received licenses last year have heard back on their renewal applications, forcing several to cancel travel plans. Jim Friedlander, president of the New York-based travel service provider Academic Arrangements Abroad, said:

We work with about 30 different non-profit organizations that have programs to Cuba in the next 12 months, and 100% of them have not received renewals of licenses.

The backlog could be due to a change in application requirements. In May, OFAC began requiring that applicants turn in detailed itineraries for each trip taken under the license, and confirmation that representatives of the organization accompanied each trip, reports USA Today.

People-to-people supporters fear that OFAC’s failure to renew licenses threatens the entire people-to-people program as organizations, faced with uncertainty, are unable to confirm plans and make deposits for arrangements on trips that often require months of logistical planning.

OFAC has not offered any information on the cause of delays, or any indication of when organizations can expect to hear back. Jeff Braunger, program manager for Cuba Travel Licensing at OFAC, said in an email response to an inquiry by the Detroit Free Press:

We have issued approximately 140 people-to-people licenses. We are doing our best to process both first-time applications and requests to renew existing licenses. We receive numerous such requests which are being handled in turn. It is our goal to respond in a timely matter.

Party Romney campaign releases platform regarding Cuba

The Cuba policy plank of the Republican Party platform has been made public. After an initial report by the Los Angeles Times that there was no Cuba plank, a report the paper soon corrected, the following language was released by the Romney campaign:

We affirm our friendship with the people of Cuba and look toward their reunion with the rest of our hemispheric family. The anachronistic regime in Havana which rules them is a mummified relic of the age of totalitarianism, a state-sponsor of terrorism. We reject any dynastic succession of power within the Castro family and affirm the principles codified in U.S. law as conditions for the lifting of trade, travel, and financial sanctions: the legalization of political parties, an independent media, and free and fair internationally-supervised elections.

We renew our commitment to Cuba’s courageous pro-democracy movement as the protagonists of Cuba’s inevitable liberation and democratic future. We call for a dedicated platform for the transmission of Radio and TV Marti and for the promotion of Internet access and circumvention technology as tools to strengthen the pro-democracy movement. We support the work of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba and affirm the principles of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, recognizing the rights of Cubans fleeing Communism

Though the subsequent LA Times article said that the party does not call explicitly for reversing President Obama’s travel reforms, the platform does endorse the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which advocated restrictions on travel and remittances that were put into place by the administration of President George W. Bush:

  • It limited family travel to Cuba to once every three years
  • It redefined the definition of family to prevent visits to non-nuclear family members like cousins or uncles
  • It offered no exemptions for travel in the event of an illness or family member death, and
  • Placed limits on the family support payments called remittances that Cuban Americans could provide their kin on the island.

A second edition of the Commission’s report came out in 2006 and said this:

Limitations on travel, parcel deliveries and remittances have sharply curtailed the regime’s manipulation of and profiteering from U.S. humanitarian policies. These measures have been successful and should continue to be implemented.

Since taking office, President Obama has provided new rules that allow Cuban Americans to visit their families and provide financial support to them on an unlimited basis.  He has also opened up new channels of travel by reviving elements of President Clinton’s people-to-people travel policy (see article on OFAC above).

By endorsing the commission’s work, the platform support harsh limits on visits to the island, even if it does not say so directly.  It also worth noting that Governor Romney’s ten-point campaign plan for Cuba explicitly calls for “Reinstating Travel & Remittance Restrictions.”
Miami-Dade approves ballot measure on business with Cuba, Syria

The Miami-Dade Commission has approved a new ballot question, introduced by commissioner Steve Bovo, to be voted on in November. It reads:

Would you support, to the extent permitted by law, prohibiting further the use of taxpayers’ dollars to procure services or capital improvement projects from companies actively doing business in countries that are on the U.S. Department of State’s list of state sponsors of terrorism?

In June, Florida’s governor signed into law a measure banning state contracts for companies working in Cuba or Syria. Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht promptly filed a case claiming the law unconstitutional and won a temporary injunction from a Miami federal judge.  That was following precedent.  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, ruling that states cannot set foreign policy.

Lawyer for Gerardo Hernández of the Cuban Five releases affidavit claiming journalist bribes

As part of an appeal to overturn his conviction, an appellate lawyer representing Gerardo Hernández, one of five Cuban intelligence agents convicted of espionage, conspiracy, and other charges, has filed an affidavit claiming that Radio/TV Martí, funded by the U.S. government, “secretly paid millions of dollars to journalists” to bias the local jury against his client, the Miami Herald reports. Hernández is serving the longest sentence of the group, with two life sentences on a charge of involuntary manslaughter for allegedly providing information that led to the shoot down of two planes in 1996, killing the four men aboard.

Attorney Martin Garbus argues in his brief that the U.S. government used the government-owned Radio/TV Martí to hire journalists for the sole purpose of producing reports condemning the Cuban agents, in order to predispose potential jurors to convict them. Garbus says the government’s continuing refusal to provide information about its actions amounts to a cover-up, writing that:

With a snap of the finger, the Government could produce all the documents and all the testimony this Court needs to render a decision that will vacate the conviction…

Every dollar for every article, image, radio or television show that was spent on this secret program violated the integrity of the trial.

Tracey Eaton reports in his Along the Malecón blog that it appears that Garbus’ affidavit has not yet been filed, though it was expected to be filed on the 20th. The habeas corpus appeal for Hernández was filed earlier this year. In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal that the five agents did not get a fair trial in Miami.


Business executives, ex-Cuban officials sentenced to prison for corruption

Three former officials of Cuba’s Ministry of Basic Industry and nine nickel industry executives have received long prison terms for corruption in relation to the “negotiation, contracting and execution” of the expansion project for the Pedro Soto Alba plant in the eastern province of Holguín, Reuters reports.

The sentences, released in state newspaper Granma, range from six to twelve years. The harshest sentences were handed to the former ministry officials: Alfredo Zayas López, former vice minister and executive director of the metals company (12 years); Ricardo González Sánchez, former vice minister, president of the Board of Directors of the metals company and president of the project’s steering committee (10 years); and Antonio de los Reyes Bermúdez, former vice minister and a member of the project steering committee. The industry employees sentenced held positions including assistant managers of finance and production, and a workplace safety and health specialist.

This latest conviction comes after top executives (both Cuban and foreign) and government officials have been arrested on corruption charges in sectors throughout the Cuban economy, as a part of President Raúl Castro’s battle against corruption.

The Pedro Soto Alba plant, near the city of Moa, is a joint venture between Cuba’s government the Canadian mining company Sherritt International Corp., which is also Cuba’s largest private foreign investor. Its expansion project over the past decade will boost output from 32,000 metric tons per year to 38,000 expected in 2012. It is the largest of Cuba’s three nickel processing plants. Cuba is one of the world’s largest nickel producers, and nickel is the island’s top export product.

More women in government positions in Cuba

According to EFE, the number of women holding seats in Cuba’s Parliament has increased to 45% over the past two years, the third-highest in the world for female representation.  A report in state newspaper Granma said that government initiatives to promote the presence of women has led to 7 government entities employing 50-70% women in senior positions.   In addition, the ministers of Food Industry, Finances and Prices, Internal Commerce, Education, Labor, Science, Justice, and Light Industry are all women. Other important posts held by women include the Controller-General’s Office and the Water Resources Institute.

The report also noted increases in female representation on Provincial Administration Councils and municipal councils.

Tropical Storm Isaac headed toward Cuba

The Weather Channel has sent meteorologists and reporters to Cuba, Haiti, and Florida to monitor Tropical Storm Isaac, reports the Examiner.  Mike Seidel will report on the storm from Cuba, marking the first time The Weather Channel has ever reported live from the island.

Granma released an informative note today that the storm will begin affecting the region in the next 48 hours, and warned that heavy rain could cause drainage problems, flooding, and obstruct roads.  Specifically, the note said that the provinces of Guantánamo, Santiago de Cuba, Granma, Holguín, Las Tunas, and Camagüey should pay close attention to the news starting today.

Much can be learned by how Cuba reacts in a crisis.  In our publication 9 ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US, the Center for Democracy in the Americas advocated for increased cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba, to benefit from sharing knowledge and resources when dealing with severe weather:

Consider this astounding contrast: More than 1,600 Americans died during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the U.S. death toll from Hurricane Ike in 2008 could exceed one hundred. Cuba’s death rate from storms over this same period was about three persons per year; its loss of life due to Ike was comparatively minimal compared to losses in the U.S. Only seven Cubans died from Ike.

The Center for International Policy has made a long-term commitment to the study of how Cuba handles hurricanes as seen in this July 2012 publication.

Around the Region

El Salvador reaches resolution over courts conflict

After 17 long negotiating sessions, Salvadoran political parties reached a solution to the country’s month’s long constitutional crisis.

The crisis began when the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled that the National Assembly’s process for the election of judges to the Supreme Court in 2006 and 2012 had violated the constitution. This decision effectively declared two-thirds of the sitting Supreme Court judges illegitimate, a ruling that the National Assembly rejected. An appeal by the legislature to the Central American Court of Justice (CACJ) resulted in a decision siding with the legislature and was promptly rejected by the Constitutional Chamber.

As a resolution, the Constitutional Court will remain intact, and the 2006 and 2012 magistrates in question were re-elected by the Assembly on August 20th.  José Salomon Padilla was elected as president of both the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Chamber.

Following expressions of concern from the international community and especially the U.S., including calls from some for a halt to aid to El Salvador, non-stop negotiation sessions began on July 24th between the leaders of all political parties, mediated by President Funes. The final agreement was signed August 19th. Another crisis could be ahead with a ruling challenging the legislative election of the Attorney General.

Linda Garrett, CDA’s Senior Consultant for El Salvador, publishes a monthly update with news and analysis on El Salvador. To sign up for the updates, send an email to lisa@democracyinamericas.org.

Recommended Reading

Leaving the hardliners behind, William Vidal, On Two Shores

Just as economists are famous for predicting 10 out of the last 4 recessions, Cuba policy watchers are renowned for declaring the end of the political influence of the hard-liners in the exile community just before it once again glaringly proves that its hands are still quite firmly on the levers of policy.  In Florida, the steady march of years has, more often than not, proven the strength of the status quo.  Demography is not yet destiny.

But it’s hard to ignore the reality depicted by William Vidal, from the excellent blog ontwoshores.com. His essay – focusing on the Pope’s visit to Cuba, the underwhelming reaction to Ozzie Guillen’s comments about Fidel Castro, the striking down of Florida’s law barring contracts with firms that do business with community, the resumption of cargo service to the island, and the big increases in family travel to Cuba – identifies some powerful examples of change in the Cuban American community and its politics.

The spice man cometh to Cuba, a hot land of bland food, Nick Miroff, NPR

“Cuba has hot weather, hot music, hot politics and hot Cubans. So why is the food so bland? Tourists who have visited the island, particularly Cuba’s state-run restaurants, know that Cuban chefs are deeply fond of frying their ingredients, but the range of seasonings tends to span from salt to garlic, with not much else in between.”

Cuba examines Asian model for economic reforms, Nick Miroff, NPR

“Cuba is one of the world’s last remaining communist states. Cuba’s allies in China and Vietnam also maintain firm one-party rule, but have prospered by introducing market principles to their economic models. With Cuban President Raul Castro easing government controls on property rights and private enterprise, many are wondering if the struggling island is looking to Asia for a way forward.”

Oscar Arias Sánchez reflects on 25 years since Central American peace accords, Manuel Roig-Franzia, the Washington Post

“A quarter-century on, the man of peace still waits. Still waits for the broader hopes of another era to be realized. Still waits for the killing to stop. Oscar Arias Sanchez was 46 years old when, as the improbably self-assured president of Costa Rica, he became an international phenomenon by brokering an impossible accord, knitting the presidents of five Central American nations into agreement on a peace deal that spurred the end of the civil wars ravaging the region.”

© 2012 Center for Democracy in the Americas. All rights reserved.

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