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#CubaNow Briefing: It’s Silly Season And The Flowers Are In Full Bloom

David Gomez

#CubaNow Briefing

Oct 23, 2015


There are weeks when you see the widespread support for engagement and growing ties between the U.S. and Cuba and wonder how our peoples could have been separated from each other for so long. Then there are other weeks when the political showmanship and downright petty behavior of government leaders on both sides remind you why that was the case, while at the same time reinforcing the urgent need for our new policy approach.

This week was one of the latter.

To begin with, Politico reported this week that attempts to replace the U.S. ambassador to Mexico has been held up over the nominee’s work previous work on Cuba policy. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, nominated in June to fill the post after representing the Obama Administration in its normalization talks with Cuba, has apparently run afoul of isolationist Senators Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez, who are looking to “needle the White House” by spitefully blocking a more than qualified nominee to one of the United States’ most important ambassadorial posts.

Menendez couldn’t even cop to holding up the nomination over Cuba policy. “I have concerns about her nomination, but not because she participated in the Cuba negotiations,” he told Politico. But history tells a different lesson. Menendez previously held up the nomination of another ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual. His crime? Having written a report urging normalization with Cuba. In 2009, Menendez also held up the nominations of two of President Obama’s top science advisers “as leverage to get Senate leaders’ attention for a matter related to Cuba rather than questioning the nominees’ credentials.”

Taken with Rubio’s promise to shutter the U.S. embassy in Havana and entirely undo the changes to Cuba policy—with no apparent understanding of how the law works—and it becomes painfully clear that the U.S. ambassadorship to Mexico is the victim of another political temper tantrum over Cuba by the usual suspects. We agree with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member Sen. Ben Cardin, who told Politico “There’s no justification to [hold up Roberta Jacobson’s nomination]…We have drugs. We have immigrants and refugees, we have bilateral economic relations, we have environmental relations. We have so many things going on with Mexico, we need a confirmed ambassador representing our interests.”

This week also saw New Jersey Governor Chris Christie make a cynical attempt to garner headlines – and South Florida primary votes – by attempting to ban flights from New Jersey to Cuba. Only months after claiming that people traveling to Cuba should be able to “make their own free choice” to visit the Island, the governor has apparently decided that such a right doesn’t apply to his own constituents and asked the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to ban flights to Havana from Newark Liberty International Airport until Cuba returned wanted fugitive Joanne Chesimard. It’s a puzzling move given polls showing that nearly two-thirds of New Jersey voters support normalization with Cuba, as well as warnings from New Jersey officials that this move could harm the state’s economy. It’s also a demand that won’t work—and the former U.S. Attorney knows it. Extradition of fugitives is an issue resolved through diplomatic negotiations, not a governor’s easily-bypassed threats to withhold flights.

Speaking of pandering to certain South Florida voters, a bizarre bit of legislation is making its way through the state legislature. Lawmakers haven taken up a bill that penalizes companies doing business with Cuba, despite the fact that a federal court already ruled the provisions unconstitutional. The original provisions were heavily backed by pro-sanctions hardliners despite its shaky legal footing, so maybe they’ll take it up at their panel offering “other perspectives on investing Cuba” in Miami City Hall today. Business leaders in attendance would be well-advised to double-check the many insights into the rule of law shared at this event with their attorneys.

On the subject of ham-handed moves, Cuba’s United Nations resolution to condemn the embargo has ultimately proven too passé for the U.S. “Regrettably the resolution tabled looks very similar to resolutions from previous years,” an anonymous official told the Associated Press, a month after initial reports that the U.S. was considering an abstention from the vote in light of renewed relations with Cuba. We’ve noted time and again that the United Nations’ annually lopsided vote against the embargo shows how isolated the U.S. has been on the Cuba policy for years. But submitting a resolution that failed to fully take into account the historic changes of the past year is a missed opportunity by Cuban leaders to acknowledge and build on its progress.

Back in Havana, Cuban officials finally released artist Danilo Maldonado, who’d been held without charge since last December after painting two pigs with the names “Fidel” and “Raúl” in an act of satire. Maldonado, who’d been on a hunger strike, was named a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International, which called the release a positive move but rightly urged the government to reform its treatment towards open dissent.

We’ve also written a bit lately about much of the slowness of the reforms in Cuba falls at the feet of hardline elements within the government who continue to resist change. That trend was crystalized this week when Fidel Castro’s own son called out bureaucratic corruption in an interview with Chilean television. When a Castro says the Cuban government isn’t changing fast enough, you know something’s got to give.

These facepalm-worthy weeks serve to highlight how much the historic changes to Cuba policy have been driven by everyday Americans and Cubans who’ve refused to waver in the face of long-entrenched interests vested in the old way of doing things. Progress hasn’t always been easy or quick, but it’s happening thanks to your efforts.

Now more than ever, thank you for your support.

David Gomez
Political Director, #CubaNow

Senators Hold Diplomatic Post Hostage As Payback For Cuba Policy

Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson’s Nomination Of U.S. Ambassador To Mexico Held Up Over Cuba Policy. “In June, the administration nominated Roberta Jacobson, the State Department’s assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, who helped lead the negotiations that re-established U.S. diplomatic ties to Cuba. But her confirmation has been held up in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with the vote postponed earlier this month. The committee is expected to vote in favor of Jacobson during its next business meeting, but the nomination is then likely to languish indefinitely on the Senate floor unless Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) deems it a priority. The holdup, sources familiar with the committee said, centers directly on Jacobson’s work on Cuba. The delays in her committee approval have ‘everything to do with the Cuban policy,’ said Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, ranking Democrat on the committee.” [Politico, “Mexican post held hostage over Cuba,” 10/21/15]

Sen. Marco Rubio And Sen. Bob Menendez Reportedly Holding Up Jacobson’s Ambassador Nomination To “Needle The White House” Over Cuba Policy. “Sources said Rubio, a Florida senator considered a top-tier 2016 candidate, and Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey who is facing federal corruption charges, are Jacobson’s primary opponents. Both senators, who are of Cuban descent, have actively opposed Obama’s decision to restore ties to the communist-led island, a decision that took effect July 20, but there’s been virtually nothing they’ve been able to do to stop the executive branch. Homing in on Jacobson’s nomination for the Mexico position is one way to needle the White House.” [Politico, “Mexican post held hostage over Cuba,” 10/21/15]

Menendez Claimed He Wasn’t Taking Out Cuba Frustrations On Jacobson, Despite Not Being Able To Name Any Other Objections... “In an interview, Menendez said that he wasn't taking out his Cuba frustrations on Jacobson; he has additional concerns about her nomination related to the administration's policies across Latin America. But he wouldn’t say what his objections are or whether he will vote against her in committee or slow her nomination on the Senate floor. ‘That is wrong. I have concerns about her nomination, but not because she participated in the Cuba negotiations,’ Menendez said. ‘When I determine exactly what I intend to do, if it is to oppose her, I will describe the reasons but they will not be based upon her negotiation.’” [Politico, “Mexican post held hostage over Cuba,” 10/21/15]

…But Menendez And Rubio “Have Tried Repeatedly To Trip Up The Obama Administration’s Nominees Due To Their Views On Cuba.” “‘We have a person who is eminently qualified. No one disagrees with her qualifications. There’s no justification to hold this individual up,’ Cardin said. ‘We have drugs. We have immigrants and refugees, we have bilateral economic relations, we have environmental relations. We have so many things going on with Mexico, we need a confirmed ambassador representing our interests.’ Rubio and Menendez have tried repeatedly to trip up the Obama administration’s nominees due to their views on Cuba. Rubio temporarily blocked Jacobson’s 2011 nomination to her current post, in part over Cuba. Back in 2009, Menendez reportedly opposed the ultimately successful nomination of Carlos Pascual for the Mexico job; Pascual had helped write a paper arguing for normalizing ties with Cuba.” [Politico, “Mexican post held hostage over Cuba,” 10/21/15]

Springsteen Fan Also Into Petty

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie Attempts To Deny Flights From New Jersey To Cuba. “New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is asking the agency overseeing Newark Liberty International Airport to bar any airline requests to routinely fly from there to Cuba until a fugitive living on the island is returned to the U.S. Mr. Christie, a Republican running for president, has opposed the Obama administration’s efforts to open diplomatic relations with Cuba until its government extradites Joanne Chesimard, who was convicted of killing a New Jersey State trooper in 1973. She escaped from prison and fled to Cuba, where she was granted political asylum. State Department officials said in April they were discussing her return to the U.S. with Cuban officials, but haven’t announced further action on the issue.” [Wall Street Journal, “Chris Christie Wants to Bar New Jersey-Cuba Flights,” 10/20/15]

Christie In June: “If You’re Allowed To (Travel To Cuba) Everybody’s Got To Make Their Own Free Choice.” “And while the new rules stop short of allowing tourists to visit Cuba, they open the door on other types of authorized travel — including family visits, professional meetings and religious activities. ‘If you're allowed to (travel to Cuba) everybody's got to make their own free choice,’ Christie said. ‘I'm just giving my opinion on it, which is I don't know why you would want to support that regime given the way they treat their own people.’” [, “Americans shouldn’t travel to Cuba and participate ‘in the oppression,’ Christie says,” 6/19/15]

New Jersey Official Says Banning Flights To Cuba Could Harm New Jersey’s Economy: “I’m Not Sure [This] Is In The Long-Term Interest Of Anyone In The Region.” “Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski agrees that returning Chesimard to New Jersey should be of priority, but denying flights to Cuba may have economic repercussions for the state. ‘Those flights would go out of another airport and our region would lose that economic advantage,’ Wisniewski said. ‘I’m not sure than is in the long-term interest of anyone in the region.’ Wisiniewski said that he supports going after Chesimard though diplomacy, but that discussion should be separate from resuming flights to Cuba.” [CBS New York, “Banning Flights To Cuba Could Hurt NJ’s Economy, Official Says,” 10/21/15]

Even Fidel Castro’s Son Thinks Change In Cuba Is Too Slow

Fidel Castro’s Son Blames Bureaucracy And Corruption In Cuban Government For Slow Pace Of Change. “El hijo de Fidel Castro, Alex Castro, culpó al burocratismo, a corrientes conservadoras y a la corrupción por la lentitud de los cambios en Cuba en una entrevista concedida al canal de noticias chileno 24 Horas. “Va muy lento. Yo soy de las personas que quisiera que las cosas vayan más rápido. Hay gente muy conservadora. Las corrientes conservadoras son peligrosas, porque un cambio es para mejor y si no resulta, vuelves a cambiar”, dijo sin especificar qué funcionarios formaban parte de ese grupo.” [El Nuevo Herald, “Hijo de Fidel Castro culpa a la corrupción del ‘inmovilismo,’” 10/20/15]

Alex Castro: Some People In The Cuban Government Won’t Do Anything Unless You Pay Them. “Castro se mostró inconforme con el ritmo de las reformas introducidas por su tío, el gobernante Raúl Castro y se quejó que, pese a que el sexto congreso del Partido Comunista Cubano acordó en el 2011 avanzar hacia la unificación monetaria este objetivo no se ha logrado aún. ‘Aquí hay personas que quieren hacer muchas cosas, pero hay gente que está en puestos clave que si tú no les pagas, nos les pasas algo, entonces no te dejan hacer nada’, dijo en referencia a la corrupción en Cuba, la que reconoció existe como ‘en muchos lugares’.” [El Nuevo Herald, “Hijo de Fidel Castro culpa a la corrupción del ‘inmovilismo,’” 10/20/15]

Cuba Releases Prisoner Of Conscience “El Sexto” After 10 Months Without Trial

Cuban Government Releases Cuban Artist “El Sexto” AfterIncarcerating Him Without Trial For Nearly A Year. “Cuban artist Danilo Maldonado, better known as ‘El Sexto’ (The Sixth) was released from Cuba’s Valle Grande prison Tuesday morning after being incarcerated without trial for 10 months. ‘They arrived at 10 a.m. and took me out of my cell, they took me to gather my belongings and handcuffed me. All of this took about 15 minutes,’ Maldonado said in a telephone interview from his home with el Nuevo Herald. ‘They told me “your release is immediate” and they warned me “please, don’t make the same mistake, you’re being used as a puppet,” and to not commit acts of immaturity, and all those crazy things. I didn’t respond at all,’ said the graffiti artist, who assured that despite his thin frame, he is in good health.” [Miami Herald, “Cuba frees artist ‘El Sexto,’” 10/20/15]

“El Sexto” Artist Danilo Maldonado: Government Officials “Don’t Have A Sense Of Humor,” Arrested Him Before He Was Able To Display Pigs Painted With Names Of The Castro Brothers. “Government officials ‘don't have a sense of humor,’ Maldonado told reporters after his release. ‘The crazy thing is, the show didn't even happen and look at the repercussion it had.’ Police discovered the animals in the trunk of Maldonado's taxi before he intended to display them in a Christmas Day art show. The Cuban government maintains it does not have any political prisoners and characterizes Cuba's small but vocal dissident community as mercenaries paid by U.S. interests to destabilize the government. Dissidents had made Maldonado's case a rallying cry. The government never commented on it.” [Reuters, “Cuba releases artist ‘El Sexto,’ considered prisoner of conscience,” 10/21/15]

Amnesty International: “This Long Awaited Positive Move Must Open The Door For Much Needed Political Reform In Cuba.” “The release of a Cuban graffiti artist who had been held in prison for nearly a year after he painted ‘Raúl’ and ‘Fidel’ on the backs of two pigs must herald a new approach to freedom of expression and dissent in the country, said Amnesty International… ‘Danilo’s release is great news but he should have never been jailed in the first place. Peacefully expressing an opinion is not a crime,’ said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International. ‘This long awaited positive move must open the door for much needed political reform in Cuba, where people are routinely harassed, arrested and thrown in jail on spurious charges for speaking their minds. This needs to change urgently if Cuba is serious about respecting human rights, including the rights of people opposing the Cuban government.’” [Amnesty International, “Cuba: Release of graffiti artist must herald new approach to dissent,” 10/20/15]

U.S. Won’t Abstain From United Nations Vote On Embargo

U.S. Official Says United States Has No Choice But To Oppose UN Embargo Vote. “The Obama administration has concluded that it must oppose a U.N. resolution criticizing the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, an American official familiar with the process said Wednesday, because the draft in its current form doesn't ‘fully reflect’ the new spirit of engagement between the former Cold War foes. The official left open the possibility that the U.S. would change its position, in the unlikely event Cuba amends the text. Officials had been hoping for a compromise that would allow the U.S. to abstain, an unprecedented step that would effectively pit President Barack Obama's administration with the world body against the Republican-led Congress, which has refused to repeal the 54-year embargo.” [AP, “Official: US Can’t Abstain From UN Vote on Cuba Embargo,” 10/21/15]

U.S. Official: UN Resolution On Embargo “Doesn’t Appear To Fully Reflect The Spirit Of Engagement” Post-Normalization. ‘‘Regrettably the resolution tabled looks very similar to resolutions from previous years, and doesn't appear to fully reflect the spirit of engagement that President Obama has championed as the best way to advance our shared interests with Cuba,’ a U.S. official familiar with the text told the AP on Wednesday. The official wasn't authorized to be quoted by name and demanded anonymity.” [AP, “Official: US Can’t Abstain From UN Vote on Cuba Embargo,” 10/21/15]

Florida Legislature Advances Anti-Cuba Legislation Already Declared Unconstitutional

Bill Making Its Way Through Florida Legislature Still Contains Unconstitutional Measure Threatening Penalties For Corporations Doing Business With Cuba. “The cold war between the U.S. and Cuba may be nearing an end but at least one remnant survives in Florida law, threatening corporations with penalties if they do business with the Communist nation. No one seems to expect any enforcement of the 2012 measure, which prohibits companies with business activities in Cuba from bidding on state or local government contracts worth $1 million or more. For one thing, a federal court declared the measure an unconstitutional interference by the state in issues of international commerce that are the purview of the federal government. And two years later, last December, President Obama announced he is moving the U.S. toward normalization in its relations with Cuba after five decades of isolation. Still, enforceable or not, the language remains. And it’s getting a fresh look this week in Tallahassee as lawmakers seek to add other business dealings to the list of those subject to penalties from the state — dealings where companies participate in a boycott of Israel.” [Tampa Tribune, “Pro-Israel Florida bill penalizes companies trading with Cuba,” 10/20/15]

University of South Florida Professor Susan MacManus: Keeping Cuba Provisions In Bill After A Federal Court Already Declared It Unenforceable “Needs To Be Removed For Transparency. Otherwise It Is Obfuscation Rather Than Clarification.” “A reading of SB36 seems to indicate that corporations will pay a price if they choose to do business with Cuba, said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor. ‘It doesn’t make much sense to keep it there if it has been declared unenforceable,’ MacManus said. ‘If for no other reason, it needs to be removed for transparency. Otherwise it is obfuscation rather than clarification.’” [Tampa Tribune, “Pro-Israel Florida bill penalizes companies trading with Cuba,” 10/20/15]

Latin America Legal Expert Antonio Martinez II: “The Bill Is Still Unconstitutional Because IT Seeks To Impose A Foreign Policy On Cuba Different From The Rest Of The Country.” “Those who favor normalization have little to fear, though, from the stubborn survival of the bill’s language regarding Cuba, said Antonio Martinez II, a New York attorney specializing in Latin America relations. ‘The bill is still unconstitutional because it seeks to impose a foreign policy on Cuba different from the rest of the country,’ Martinez said in an email. ‘The state of Florida cannot impose its own sanctions regime on a country that is even stricter than the federal government’s. The U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control administers and enforces our sanctions laws.’” [Tampa Tribune, “Pro-Israel Florida bill penalizes companies trading with Cuba,” 10/20/15]

¡No Me Digas!

@SabrinaSiddiqui: Asked about Obama administration's relationship with Latin America, Jeb remarks, "What relationship? We're not engaged … we should be." [Twitter, 10/21/15]

@CNN: DIY drone video captures unseen views of Cuba [Twitter,10/22/15]