Friday, January 25, 2008

Nationally Signifcant Election: Raul Martinez vs Lincoln Diaz-Balart

Posted on Wed, Jan. 23, 2008 Miami Herald

Candidates Martinez, Díaz-Balart start swinging


The race for the congressional seat of South Florida Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart quickly turned nasty Tuesday after former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, a Democrat, formally announced he was challenging the 15-year Republican incumbent.

Díaz-Balart's camp questioned Martinez's ''integrity'' and accused him of being willing to make ``unilateral concessions to the Cuban dictatorship.''

Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer blasted Martinez for ''corruption and indecency'' -- allusions to Martinez's 1991 conviction for alleged extortion, which was reversed on appeal -- and his use of profane language while denouncing Greer for criticizing Hillary Clinton's presence at a fundraiser last year at the ex-mayor's home.

Announcing his candidacy at Hialeah City Hall, Martinez vowed he would not be intimidated by Díaz-Balart.

One of Martinez's advisors, meanwhile, called Greer ''irrelevant'' and branded as false the charge that Martinez would make concessions to Cuba.

The heated tone of the campaign was not surprising. The race pits two powerful and prominent Cuban-American leaders in a district that has seen little or no opposition to Díaz-Balart since he won the congressional seat in 1992.


Among the supporters who surrounded Martinez, 58, at city hall were former Hialeah Police Chief Rolando Bolaños and City Council Members Carlos Hernandez, Jose Caragol, and Luis Gonzalez -- all Republicans.

Notably missing was Martinez's protégé and current Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, also a Republican. Martinez said more GOP supporters will come out soon.

When asked about his ability to reach voters outside Hialeah, in a congressional district that includes Miami Lakes, Miramar, and Pembroke Pines and stretches south to Kendall, Martinez said he has reached out to local leaders.

``I've spoken to many of the leaders in Broward County who have said they will support me.''

Martinez also is counting on one of Florida's most popular Democratic leaders: Bob Graham, former U.S. senator and governor.

''Who better to have on your side than Bob Graham?'' Martinez told the enthusiastic crowd in Hialeah.

The Democratic Party, which wrested control of Congress from the GOP in 2006, considers this race crucial to expand its power. The challenge will be whether Martinez, who held public office in Hialeah for almost 30 years, can raise the money needed to run a competitive race beyond the City of Progress.

Martinez already has met key Democratic leaders to strategize.

''Mayor Martinez will bring his experience of getting things done for Floridians to Congress, fighting for children's healthcare, finding solutions to the housing crisis and keeping and creating good jobs in South Florida,'' said Kyra Jennings, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington.


Those goals were echoed by one Martinez supporter at his announcement. ''The party doesn't matter, what matters is someone who will bring changes,'' said Ileana Quintana, 60, who identified herself as a Cuban-American Republican.

Shortly after the announcement, Díaz-Balart's supporters came out swinging.

They hammered away at Martinez's record in Miami federal court where he was indicted in 1990 and convicted of extortion and racketeering in 1991. The conviction was overturned on appeal, two subsequent trials ended in hung juries and a federal prosecutor ultimately dropped the charges.

But Díaz-Balart, in his statement, did not let the matter drop. He noted Martinez was never acquitted.

Díaz-Balart also said Martinez ``supports unilateral concessions to the Cuban dictatorship.''


At a recent meeting with reporters and editors of The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, Díaz-Balart pointed to a recent issue of the liberal CubaNews bulletin, which quoted Democratic activists as saying that this year's strategy is to dethrone the three Cuban-American members of Congress -- Lincoln and Mario Díaz-Balart and Ileana Ros Lehtinen -- because they oppose lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba or easing travel restrictions.

Martinez maintains he would not seek to weaken the embargo but would push to ease the Bush administration's 2004 travel restrictions. The policy limits Cuban exile visits to close relatives on the communist island to once every three years instead of annually as before.

''The government should encourage family reunification, not interfere with it,'' said Jeffrey Garcia, Martinez's advisor. ``Raul Martinez thinks that families should be able to visit their family members or help them financially.''

Garcia accused Díaz-Balart of focusing excessively on Cuba policy.

''You expect Lincoln Díaz-Balart to call anyone who disagrees with him a communist,'' said Garcia.

Díaz-Balart's camp responded by noting that of nine congressional accomplishments listed in his media statement, eight had nothing to do with Cuba.

They included obtaining immigration status for Central Americans, restoration of supplemental security income for legal immigrants who are elderly, blind or disabled and have little or no income, $100 million for a new U.S. Southern Command headquarters, funding for Interstate 75 in southwest Broward County. and for extending Metrorail to the Palmetto Expressway.


Perhaps one of the most bizarre allegations against Martinez was the one mentioned by Carlos Curbelo, Díaz-Balart's spokesman, who recalled a June 30, 1999 episode in which Martinez punched a young butcher who had been blocking traffic on the Palmetto Expressway during a protest.

The fight, caught on video, played all day on local TV news stations. And Curbelo noted the episode may hit YouTube soon.

More than 400 people had gathered on the expressway to protest the Coast Guard's treatment of six Cuban rafters.

The protest turned violent and seven people were arrested. Bolaños, then Hialeah's police chief, was hit in the head with a rock. Martinez went to the scene after Bolaños called him.

Garcia said Martinez acted properly in defense of his police chief.

''If Lincoln Díaz-Balart does not think we should stick up for our police during a riot, he is once again on the wrong side of the issue,'' Garcia said.


Draft Martinez web site:

Will Joe Garcia vs. Mario Diaz-Balart be next in the ring?

Friday, January 11, 2008

Florida Travel Ban Challenged in Court

Ban on travel to Cuba faces challenge
Civil rights activists and university officials argue that the law is unconstitutional.
Published January 11, 2008

TAMPA - Noel Smith used to count on traveling to Havana twice a year to develop the University of South Florida's ties with Cuban artists and art institutions.

A curator at USF's Institute for Research in Art, her work was part of long-standing exchanges between Florida's state universities and academics in Cuba.

Those ties were broken in 2006 when the Florida Legislature passed a law banning the use of state resources for academic travel to the communist island.

"It's been very destructive of our program here," said Smith.

But the Travel to Terrorist States Act is now facing a mounting legal challenge from civil rights activists and state university officials and faculty who argue it is unconstitutional.

"Our academic freedom is being hurt," said Damian Fernandez, vice provost at Florida International University in Miami-Dade County.

The act, signed into law by then Gov. Jeb Bush on May 30, 2006, prohibits professors, students and researchers from using money administered by a public university or college - be it federal or state funds and even private foundation grants - to travel to any country listed as a terrorist state by the U.S. State Department. Besides Cuba, the list includes Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.

The case began when the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida sued the Board of Governors, which oversees Florida's 11 public universities, and the state attorney general intervened on the board's behalf.

Miami District Judge Adalberto Jordan rejected the lawsuit last year. But his decision is being appealed by the ACLU. A ruling is expected next week.

But the Board of Governors, which has begun to assert its autonomy in battles with the Legislature over tuition, transformed itself from defendant to plaintiff. Earlier this month, the Board of Governors filed its own suit, arguing that privately funded academic travel should be permitted.

"The Board of Governors believes the Travel Act's prohibition on the use of non-state funds violates established First Amendment protections," the motion states, while conceding, "The Travel Act, as it relates to the use of state funds, is a proper exercise of Florida's spending power."

It's hard to predict how the judge will rule, according to Bill Kaplan, a lecturer on education and constitutional law at Stetson University College of Law. But the case is potentially precedent-setting because it deals with issues like the boundary between federal and state authority and academic freedom in the face of international terrorism.

"As we're facing these terrorism threats, and as we're becoming increasingly globalized in everything, these kinds of issues are increasingly important," he said.

Strong international study programs are key to a state such as Florida, which has a large foreign-born population and depends on global trade and tourism, faculty members say. FIU's Cuban Research Institute is considered one of the country's top centers for the study of Cuban history, culture and politics, with 40 faculty associates.

"We cannot have a state that is so inserted in the global arena and not have faculty engaging in research in key areas," said Fernandez, who heads FIU's Cuban Research Institute.

Cuba's proximity and historical ties with Florida and U.S. foreign policy make it especially deserving of close academic study. In any political conflict it makes strategic sense to "know your enemy," said Fernandez. "We need to know and have the freedom to find out what is going on."

Rep. David Rivera, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami, defends the law he co-wrote, noting that it was passed unanimously by the Legislature. "Florida taxpayers do not want their money or their publicly funded resources to be utilized for travel to terrorist nations," he said.

University faculty members point out that Cuba-related programs in the state are almost exclusively funded with private money, to avoid controversy.

Riveramakes no distinction between public and private funds "because all of the funds are co-mingled, utilizing infrastructure of the public university system," he said, including secretarial staff, as well as university computers and e-mails.

He insists that the law does not ban professors from traveling to Cuba. Private foundations could directly fund professors, bypassing the universities, he said.

Rivera also suggested university professors could pay for trips to Cuba out of their own pockets.

That is nonsense, says Howard Simon, the ACLU's executive director, noting that major foundations only give money to well-established tax-deductible institutions, not individuals. Simon says the Legislature was "conned" by Rivera's argument that private funds were not affected.

"Now it's up to the federal court to undo the mistake by the Legislature," he said.

Rivera discredits the value of the travel. "A lot of this research is bogus," he said, arguing that Cuba controls who can visit, who they talk to and what information is made available.

University faculty members beg to differ. Research into Cuban agriculture at the University of Florida dating back to 1994 provided highly useful data and information on crops in Cuba until funding stopped, said William Messina, coordinator of economic analysis at the Food and Resource Economics Department. The program won three grants totaling $200,000 from the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

"You can't understand what's going on down there if you don't visit the island," added Messina, noting that UF's Cuba researchers have been invited to testify before Congress. "We are the eyes and ears of the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture)," he said.

Fast facts

Who can go

U.S. travel to Cuba is mostly limited to humanitarian and educational groups, journalists and Cuban-Americans. People must be licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department to engage in travel to, from and within Cuba. Tourists cannot receive a license. This restriction includes tourist travel to Cuba from or through a third country such as Mexico or Canada, though this is a popular route for Americans. Specific licenses are granted on a case-by-case basis to religious groups, athletes and people conducting authorized trade.

Sources: Times files, U.S. State Department

© 2007 • All Rights Reserved • St. Petersburg Times

Letter to the Editor

The effort by the Florida state legislature, as by the Bush Administration, to prevent travel to Cuba sacrifices American principles to partisan special interests.

The bottom line is that they are afraid that large scale visits by Americans will provide a more realistic understanding of Cuba as it is today and destroy the cartoon image cultivated by the old guard in Miami.

Such interaction would also encourage the widespread debate of economic and social reform underway in Cuba because it would blunt the sense of an irredeemably hostile US. Internal reforms would spell the end of the hard liners' dreams of the regime's collapse and their return in triumph.

The absurd rules of the Democratic National Committee have foreclosed the needed debate between Bush-light Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama over taking the first humane step toward a rational relationship with Cuba, ending restrictions on family travel and remittances.

Nevertheless, the voters of Florida could still send a signal.

John McAuliff

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

New Republic article on failed US policy and candidates

The Failed Policy That Won't Die
New Republic, DC - January 2

By Joshua Kurlantzick

Now really is the time to change our stance towards Cuba--but will we do anything about it? Probably not

Normally known for his grandiose statements and public flourishes, two weeks ago Fidel Castro made a momentous announcement relatively quietly. In a letter read on state media, Fidel, who in the summer of 2006 had handed caretaker power to his brother Raul while battling a serious (and still not fully identified) illness, wrote that "my basic duty is not to cling to office, and even less to obstruct the path of younger people." For many longtime Cuba-watchers, this was Fidel's final admission that he would never return to power. "This is it. This is really historic," Cuba expert Brian Latell told The Washington Post.

But even after Fidel's statement, American policy towards Cuba remains unchanged. On December 18, the White House blandly declared, "We're just continuing to work for democracy on the island."(The administration previously said it would not work with Raul.) And realists still believe that, in the run-up to a presidential election where, once again, Florida could be a battleground state, there is no likelihood that policy will change in 2008--or, for that matter, in 2009 or 2010 or beyond. Yet despite the continuing media coverage of Cuban-Americans' political influence, there are real reasons why the U.S. should change its Cuba policy now. And there are real signs that, unlike in the past, Miami Cubans just might be willing to live with a new, more open approach to the island.

For decades, many American politicians and officials resigned themselves to a failed Cuba policy. They understood that it made no sense to continue isolating the island even as Washington pursued close relations with communist nations, authoritarian states, and former enemies--but, hey, they had Cuban-American voters to pacify. President Clinton, for his part, allowed some opening toward the island, permitting greater trade in goods and more people-to-people exchanges. But President Bush, indebted to Miami voters after a 2000 election in which Cuban-Americans helped deliver him the presidency, reversed even this limited détente, cracking down on remittances to the island, travel, and family visits, and appointing a coordinator to map out a supposed transition to democracy on the island. Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, didn't do much at all to oppose Bush's stricter Cuba policies.

In the past two years, though, it has become increasingly obvious that sanctions on Cuba cannot be written off as an absurd but costless policy. As a recent report by the Government Accountability Office revealed, U.S. government agencies have been distracted from essential tasks like combating terrorism by having to spend time trying to find Americans who are illegally traveling to Cuba. As The New York Times reported, according to the GAO, the focus on Cuba has "strained Customs and Border Protection's capacity to carry out its primary mission of keeping terrorists, criminals, and inadmissible aliens from entering the country at Miami International Airport." The report also found the emphasis on Cuba has distracted the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which is responsible for monitoring transactions with nations the United States sanctions, including more dangerous states like Iran. Meanwhile, as in Iran, America's hard-line policy actually has undermined the cause of some Cuban reformers--men and women like Oswaldo Payá who want to bring change to Cuba and who have been tarred by Havana as toadies of Washington. Recognizing this problem, ­Cuban dissidents actually have called on the White House to relax its policy.

Worse, while in the 1990s Cuba had few other friends (having lost its Soviet patrons), today it has become a beachhead for two major American competitors. Havana's deep and cozy relationship with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez is well known--Venezuela gives Cuba some 100,000 barrels of heavily subsidized oil each day.

But Cuba has also grown increasingly close with China, which has upped its aid to Havana and has hosted Raul Castro numerous times. Witnessing China's staggering growth, Raul, though clearly no democrat, allegedly has expressed a desire to promote some Chinese-style economic reforms in Cuba. If the U.S. refuses any relations with Cuba under a Raul leadership, Beijing will only tighten its links to the island and will probably tap the oil fields off Cuba's coast--potentially fertile ground for American energy firms.

Continuing the isolation of Cuba doesn't even make political sense in America. With new generations of Cuban-Americans growing up removed from the battles of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Miami community, once thought of as a monolithic bloc, has become more open to the idea of reconciliation with Cuba. As revealed by one poll by the William C. Velazquez Institute, a Latino polling group, most Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County think the residents of Cuba "should decide when and how the political system in Cuba should be changed." Many Cuban-Americans simply aren't as interested in Cuba as they used to be; the poll found that a majority of Cuban-Americans think "improving the quality of life in South Florida is more important than waiting to change the Cuban government." Another study, by the polling firm Bendixen and Associates, showed that over 70 percent of Cuban-Americans want Washington to negotiate with the post-Fidel government in Cuba if it is willing to cooperate.

Sensing this opinion shift, many prominent Cuban-Americans have been calling for "conditional engagement" with the island that would include more direct American travel to Cuba, and more American investment--all on the condition that the Cuban government increase its respect for workers' rights, creates an independent judiciary, and allows its people greater freedom to start businesses. Even some Republican congresspeople, once loath to contemplate rapprochement with Cuba, have changed their tune: At a recent Senate Finance Committee hearing, Senator Chuck Grassley suggested the U.S. reconsider its bilateral relations with the island.

Unfortunately, most of the leading presidential candidates don't seem to see this future. Though Barack Obama supports changing the relationship with Cuba, Hillary Clinton, who previously said she wanted to continue the economic embargo, has said that she will continue Bush's tough policies. Rudy Giuliani, John Edwards, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, and John McCain have all indicated they would continue the current policy. And as Steve Clemons notes, Mike Huckabee, who backed greater engagement with Cuba when he was governor of Arkansas, now says he wants to put more pressure on Havana than the Bush administration did. So, even as Cuba and the world changes, the candidates seem stuck in the past, keeping a shrinking number of Cuban-American voters happy and leaving the rest of us less safe.

Monday, January 7, 2008

PAC Contributions and Anti-Cuba Votes

Of the 66 Democrats who voted against the Rangel amendment on Friday, 51 (77%) had received one or more contributions from the PAC since the beginning of the 2007-2008 election cycle:

Altmire $3,000
Andrews $1,000
Arcuri $2,000
Baca $2,000
Barrow $8,000
Bean $3,000
Berkley $5,000
Boyd $1,000
Braley $6,000
Brown (FL) $5,000
Butterfield $1,000
Cardoza $1,000
Carnahan $4,000
Castor $1,000
Chandler $2,000
Clyburn $10,000
Cuellar $6,000
Davis (AL) $3,000
Donnelly $3,000
Ellsworth $1,000
Engel $5,000
Gillibrand $3,000
Hare $1,000
Higgins $1,000
Hodes $1,000
Hoyer $5,000
Jones (OH) $2,500
Kennedy $1,000
Klein $11,000
Lipinski $1,000
Mahoney $7,000
Marshall $2,000
Melancon $2,000
Perlmutter $2,000
Rothman $1,000
Ryan (OH) $2,000
Salazar $6,000
Schiff $1,000
Sherman $1,000
Schuler $2,000
Sires $10,000
Skelton $2,000
Space $2,000
Wasserman Schultz $10,000
Wexler $5,000
Wilson (OH) $2,000
Wu $5,000

Of the remaining 15, 7 (47%) received one or more contributions from the US-Cuba Democracy PAC in the 2005-2006 election cycle:

Ackerman $6,000
Green (TX) $1,000
Hastings $6,000
McIntyre $5,000
Meek $4,500
Miller (NC) $4,000
Pallone $4,000

Altogether, 58 of the 66 Democrats who voted against the Rangel amendment on Friday (88%) received one or more contributions from the US-Cuba PAC in the last year and a half.

They didn't wait for the 110th Congress to convene either. The US-Cuba Democracy PAC gave out $62,000 after the 2006 general election - again mostly to newly-elected Democrats. That means the PAC gave a total of $384,500 to federal candidates since the 2006 general election.