Thursday, May 27, 2010

American Businesses Hoping to Cash In On Cuba
| 26 May 2010 | 01:03 PM ET

American industries of all kinds—from travel and telecom to construction and energy—would be poised to profit if the 52-year trade embargo with Cuba were lifted. Among the first businesses to cash in would be those involved with tourism, most experts agree.

“I believe U.S. travel and tourism companies will be the first to benefit,” said Larry Register, president of the Cuba Business Bureau consulting firm.

“The travel sector already is getting prepared for what might happen,” said Kirby Jones, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association.

In fact, the U.S. travel industry already has seen a significant growth in Cuban tourism, even with the embargo still in place.

President Obama, who has called for “a new era” in relations with the island country, lifted nearly all restrictions on Cuban Americans' travel there in April, 2009. This year, more than 20,000 Cuban-Americans travel to their homeland each month, compared to 9,000 before the restrictions were lifted. The Bush Administration had allowed only one visit per person every three years.

Last week, the U.S. agency that enforces Cuba sanctions approved 42 new travel and other service providers, allowing them to do business with Cuba. There were no such approvals last year.

If travel restrictions to Cuba were lifted for all Americans, first-year projections suggest that 800,000 to 1 million Americans would visit, said Jones, whose Alamar Associates consulting firm staged a U.S.-Cuba tourism summit in Cancun earlier this year.

“There were 120 people there,” Jones said. “All major travel-sector tour operators came to meet with Cuban officials to discuss the potential of doing business and how it might be done.”

Cuba began developing its tourism industry after the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union, which had granted Cuba billions of dollars in annual subsidies. Last year, more than 2.5 million tourists visited Cuba, mostly from Europe and Canada. Tourism is now Cuba’s biggest source of foreign income.

Jones, who has advised U.S. companies on Cuba since 1974, is not optimistic about an outright end to the Cuban trade embargo. But he thinks a piece of legislation moving through Congress may serve much the same purpose.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., is sponsor of a bill that would eliminate some of the cumbersome restrictions faced by farmers who have been selling food to Cuba since 2001.

The Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 lifted part of the trade embargo, allowing the sale of food and medical supplies to Cuba’s 11 million people. Since then, a steady flow of U.S. corn, cattle, wheat, rice, apples, cereal and soybeans has made its way to Cuba, which must import 70 percent of its food.

But the reform bill mandated that Cuba had to pay cash upfront for all transactions—allowing no credit. It further stipulated that both parties to any transaction had to use a bank in a third country, disallowing any direct dealings between U.S. and Cuban financial institutions.

Even with those restrictions, U.S. exports to Cuba reached $710 million in 2008, before the global recession forced the cash-poor island to cut back 26 percent last year to $528 million.

Peterson’s bill would do two things. First, it would allow direct transactions between U.S. and Cuban banks. Farmers have long been complaining that the forced use of another foreign bank adds needless cost and prevents expansion of their business.

The second part of the bill is more controversial. It would lift the travel ban for all U.S. citizens, so the resulting increase in tourism would help Cubans generate the cash they need to buy more U.S. goods.

“They’re within 10 votes of getting this passed in the House,” Jones said. “I’ve been following this issue for 35 years and I’ve never seen anything like this. They’re not quite there yet, but it’s closer than it’s ever been.”

A lifting of travel restrictions would sound the death knell for the embargo, Jones believes.

“Right now, most U.S. companies cannot buy or sell goods with Cuba,” he said. “But the validity of having a trade embargo when a million Americans are going there every year loses all sense of logic. I can imagine the head of John Deere thinking to himself,. ‘I can’t sell tractors down there, but my son can go for spring break?’ The embargo would begin to be dismantled.”

Jones envisions an American tourism influx that would lead to ATMs, U.S. cellphone coverage, and airplane maintenance facilities.

“There are any number of areas that will be opened up if there is free and open travel to Cuba,” he said.

Travel and tourism may top the list of business sectors that would benefit from a lifting of the Cuban trade embargo, but they’re followed closely by mining, oil, telecommunications, construction supplies—and virtually everything else.

“Who wouldn’t want to do business in Cuba? They need everything.” said George Harper, an attorney whose Miami firm often deals with Cuban trade ssues.

“You name it—construction, road building, services of all kinds, banking insurance,” added Harper, who was born and raised in Cuba. “It’s an absolute gold mine for any company that wants to expand.”

Beyond travel, the two biggest sectors with potenital for doing business in Cuba are mining and energy, experts say.

Cuba’s nickel deposits are the third-largest in the world and represent its second most valuable export behind sugar. There are no nickel deposits in the United States, which imports imports all of its nickel, mostly from Canada and Australia. It’s is used widely as an alloy, much of it in the production of stainless steel products.

Copper, chromium, and cobalt also are mined in Cuba, with lesser quantities of salt, lead, zinc, gold, silver. Immense iron reserves have not yet translated into much production.

In 2004, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that drilling off the coast of Cuba could yield 5 billion barrels of oil or more. The Brookings Institute has said that Cuban oil reserves are "equal to major fields in Alaska people want to drill."

Senators Lisa Murkowski, (R)-Alaska, and Mary Landrieu, (D)-La., drafted legislation last year that would lift the trade embargo enough for U.S. oil executives to do business in Cuba, but the bill has languished. In the meantime, a multitude of other countries have moved in.

“Cuba has entered into quite a few partnerships to aggressively explore their coast,” said Jones, of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association. “Canada, the UK, Spain, Norway, Brazil, Russia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Venezuela – all are partnering with Cuba to get at its oil.”

The United States still has a huge advantage over other countries because of its proximity to Cuba, even if it’s late to the game. Transportation costs over 90 miles of water would be miniscule when compared to Asia or Russia.

"We feel that a greater reliance on American technology to develop their resources could have a positive influence on the Cuban culture," said Robert Dillon, spokesman for Murkowski. "American companies are the best equipped and experienced to deal with offshore drilling like this, and we feel that American oil workers are missing out."

U.S. infrastructure companies stand to gain if the trade embargo is ended or loosened, said Register of the Cuba Business Bureau. “There is need for building supplies, highway development and building renovations.”

Another area worth exploring “right now” involves U.S. telecommunication firms,” Register added.

When it eased travel restrictions, The White House also announced it would exempt U.S. telecommunications companies from the trade embargo. Companies like Verizon , Sprint and AT&T could bring better phone and internet service to the island to “promote the freer flow of information,” a White House statement said.

But the Cuban government rejected such an arrangement. An executive of the government-owned telecommunications company, ETECSA, said two obstacles would first need to be removed. The U.S. froze $160 million in ETECSA funds in 1996, and they want it back. And the agreement that forces Cuba to pay U.S. companies through third countries—the same obstacle the Peterson bill would address—would need to be rescinded.

“It may seem like the Obama administration has expanded communication possibilities,” said ETECSA exec Vivian Iglesias. “But we know that unless restrictions like the (Cuban Democracy Act) and others that have been tightened since 1992 don’t change, there can’t be any normal communication.”

“The causes that led to the theft of our funds are still in place,” she said. “If those restrictions don’t change, that prevents direct communication between the United States and Cuba.”

In October 2009, a small Miami company, TeleCuba Communications Inc., announced it had obtained U.S. permission to lay fiber-optic cable to the island, but the Miami company admitted it has not yet received permission from Cuba.

While U.S. efforts are stalled, an Italian joint venture that began 12 years ago has developed a widespread cellphone system. Italy now owns 27 percent of ETECSA. Venezuela is spending $63 million to build an undersea fiber-optic cable across the Caribbean that is expected to be completed next year.

Business opportunities may abound in Cuba, but many impediments remain before U.S. firms can take advantage.

“I don’t think the embargo will be lifted in my lifetime,” said Cuban-born Harper, the Miami attorney. “But I’m 67. Maybe in my children’s lifetimes.

“I think the Castro boys will find a way to keep it in place,” he continued. “The embargo has been a good friend of theirs. There are few other things they can rally the Cuban people behind. It would be very difficult to keep control over people if there’s a free flow of information.”

Oil for U.S. and Cuba's troubled waters

By Ken Stier, contributor

May 26, 2010: 10:45 AM ET

(Fortune) -- Among the many good reasons to jettison our failed economic embargo against Cuba is one with timely new resonance: oil.

Cuba has plenty of it -- offshore in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) -- and exploration is about to being in earnest with American companies stuck on the sidelines.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the nation has about 4.6 billion barrels and nearly 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the North Cuba Basin, and possibly four times that much in its portion of the Gulf of Mexico. The lower estimate would put Cuba on a par with Ecuador or Colombia.

But monetizing these resources is a real challenge: The 48-year old U.S. embargo and Washington's diplomatic muscle have thwarted any real progress so far. But this edifice is under siege. The Spanish, through their energy giant, Repsol, are bringing a deep-water oil drilling rig to Cuba this fall.

Trade sanctions dictate that the rigs can not contain more than 10% of U.S.-made components, which can include software. Most rigs worldwide typically top that. To get around the restrictions, Repsol contracted for a Chinese, purpose-built rig from Saipem, the offshore drilling unit of Italy's Eni, SpA, which will operate the rig. When Repsol first drilled off Cuba's shore in 2004, its core samples were promising enough to bring on partners for this go-round, including Norway's Statoil and India's national oil company. Repsol did not reply to repeated requests for comment.

After Repsol starts drilling, other international oil companies with concession acreage off Cuba are expected to hire the Saipem rig, explains Jorge Pinon, a Cuban energy expert, with 32 years industry experience, including a stint as president of Amoco Oil Latin America before retiring in 2003 from BP, which had taken over Amoco.

"That rig is going to hang around in Cuban waters for quite a while," says Pinon, now a Florida International University fellow. "And if any of these drilling jobs hit pay dirt and substantial reservoirs are found, then the pressure in Washington is going to be such that you will see the embargo, as far as the oil industry is concerned, falling apart."

Fears of another spill

More worrisome to some is a petroleum stampede in Cuba with American companies -- and their environmental standards -- on the sidelines

"The sobering fact that a Cuban spill could foul hundreds of miles of American coastline and do profound harm to important marine habitats demands cooperative and proactive planning by Washington and Havana to minimize or avoid such a calamity," argues a recent Brookings Institution briefing paper.

Cuba's EEZ stretches to less than 50 miles from Key West but the embargo prohibits the U.S. from offering any assistance at all; by contrast there are agreements in place with Canada and Mexico to facilitate U.S. aid.

Both Statoil and Saipem have extensive deepwater experience, but other operators in the 59 Cuban concession areas -- held by the Chinese, Vietnamese, Malaysians, Venezuelans, among others -- don't or have less stellar environmental records.

Fears of a spill like that at the BP-contracted Deepwater Horizon rig might be an argument for the U.S. to try to head off Cuban exploration, but that seems an increasingly untenable tack, especially because Havana has been offering U.S. companies part of the action for years.
0:00 /2:42Cheap oil: Careful what you wish for

A history of failed efforts

Politics have derailed earlier overtures: During a 2006 summit in Mexico between Cuban officials and U.S. oil executives, the U.S. Treasury insisted the Cubans be booted from the U.S.-owned hotel where they were staying. But industry is again quietly lobbying, and Washington seems to be listening. After trying for a year to get a license to visit Cuba, the Houston-based International Association of Drilling Contractors was recently granted one to go to Havana, which was first reported by Cuba Standard, the leading independent site for business news on Cuba.

"It's inevitable that Cuba will explore and exploit their offshore hydrocarbon resources, and it would benefit both the American public and the Cuban people to make sure it is done right," argued a recent IADC position paper circulating in Washington.

Even more potent is the lobbying heft of the Petroleum Equipment Suppliers Associations, whose members include Halliburton (HAL, Fortune 500), Fluor (FLR, Fortune 500) and Bechtel. Industry sources credit PESA for a provision in a pending energy bill that would permit extensive industry contacts with Cuba.

A member company executive confirmed the industry sees "great opportunity" in Cuba while expressing concern that the time it takes to work out suitable conditions -- tax protocols, IP and contract sanctity protection -- could leave American companies trailing their international rivals.

Lifting or relaxing the embargo is just one step the Obama administration needs to take toward opening two-way trade with Cuba. The only real exception to the embargo -- for U.S. agricultural sales approved after 2001's devastating Hurricane Michelle -- is stymied because credit-starved Cuba has to pay cash up front. Removing that restriction could double sales to roughly $1.5 billion a year.

That is part of the "tremendous authority" the president has to advance bilateral relations, argues Jake Colvin, vice president for global trade issues at the National Foreign Trade Council, which opposes the embargo.

The Council recently joined eight other leading business organizations to support the pending Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, to better position American businesses for the eventual lifting of the embargo. Seeing Exxon Mobil (XOM, Fortune 500) invest in Cuba probably requires "fundamental change" in bilateral relations, Colvin adds.

Not everyone wants the embargo to go

That the White House, and a Democratic Congress, haven't done more to jump-start that process has frustrated some supporters who note the sway that Cuban exiles have with Washington.

Albert Fox, Jr., founder of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy, points to an April 15 fund-raiser in Miami that reportedly netted $2.5 million for President Obama. The event was hosted by the singer Gloria Estefan, whose father served as a bodyguard to Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, who was overthrown by Castro in 1959.

"This perception that things are loosening is just nonsense. The embargo is tighter today than it has been at any time in the last 51 years," argues Fox.

But even though calls for lifting the embargo grow louder as Cuba's current leadership appears ready to change, many warn the U.S. not to jump the gun.

"American companies need to take in to account business interests are not necessarily the national interest all the time," said Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, and independent organization promoting a democratic transition in the island-nation. "The Cuban regime is coming to an end, there is no question that they are on their last phase now and I think this is the worst possible time for anyone to try to invest."

--Contact Ken Stier at

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Optimism About Travel Legislation

11 May 2010 8:30 AM
By Patrick Mayock
Associate News Editor

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—When President Obama lifted long-standing restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting their native island in April 2009 after nearly two decades, it seemed only a matter of time before the United States further eased its embargo on the Caribbean nation, potentially opening a flood of travel and investment while altering the landscape of the region’s tourism industry.

That time could be less than a year away, if pending legislation makes its way through Congress as is projected, panelists said during a general session at the 14th annual Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Investment Conference last week.

The Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act (H.R. 4645), which prohibits the U.S. president from regulating travel to and from Cuba and liberalizes agricultural trade with the communist nation, could be brought to a vote in the House of Representatives as early as July, according to Timothy Ashby, a corporate attorney with Miami-based Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal.

The legislation already has enough votes to pass, Ashby said, though Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has asked bill co-sponsor Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minnesota) to ensure 220 votes (the bill only needs 217 votes to pass) before she brings it to a vote.

If the bill passes the House, it will be attached to an appropriations bill in the Senate, which likely would be voted on between the midterm elections and the Christmas holiday recess, Ashby said. Then it would go to President Obama, who already has said he would sign it into law. The law would open travel to Cuba for all U.S. citizens beginning in 2011.

Impact on Caribbean

Lifting travel restrictions on Cuba would provide an immediate boon for the country’s travel industry, Ashby said.

U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba could be lifted by as early as next year, said Timothy Ashby of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal.

Within the first year travel restrictions are lifted, the U.S. International Trade Commission predicts Cuba will receive between 554,000 and 1 million travelers from the U.S. The Cuban Ministry of Tourism agreed with those projections, adding the country could expect 3 million U.S. tourists within the first five years.

The Economist Intelligence Unit projects a 15-percent to 20-percent increase in international arrivals and a 10-percent increase per year in foreign exchange earnings, said Emily Morris, the Unit’s Cuba country analyst.

“By year 2014, you have Cuba just narrowly overtaking the Dominican Republic as the first tourist destination in the Caribbean,” she said.

Cuba is already preparing for this influx of visitors. The country is looking to expand its existing supply of 50,000 hotel rooms by at least 20,000 rooms during the next five years, according to Carlos Vogeler, regional representative for the Americas for the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

Even without expansion, the country's tourism industry is showing growth. Cuba received 2.4 million tourists during 2009, 40 percent of whom came from Canada, That represents a 3.4-percent increase from 2008 to 2009. (The world’s international tourism market declined 4.3 percent last year.)

The country received US$2.3 million in tourism-related receipts during 2009.

Any short-term benefits that befall Cuba would not adversely affect the rest of the Caribbean travel industry, the panelists agreed. On the contrary, lifting travel restrictions would instead strengthen the region’s appeal throughout the world.

“If such a thing would happen, it’s not something to fear in the Caribbean. It’s something to welcome,” Vogeler said. “That will definitely impact positively … the whole market.”

“Development of Cuban tourism actually creates a bridge for an increase in the total volume of tourists to the Caribbean,” Morris said, adding the island would create a natural route via air or sea for travelers and businesspeople.

Morris did acknowledge a short-term negative impact on the Dominican Republic, Cuba’s closest competitor. But after a slight setback during 2011, the country would eventually approach 5 million international tourist arrivals by 2014.


A lift of travel restrictions also could usher in a swell of U.S. investment in Cuba.

“The Cubans are also open to U.S. investment,” Ashby said. “ … They would welcome U.S. investors as they would welcome tourists.”

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Rubio File

Human Event Interviews Rubio

HE:  When we spoke a year ago, we discussed Cuba.  When would you approve of lifting the economic embargo against Cuba?

Rubio:  When Cuba joins the rest of the civilized world in how it treats its people.  That is freeing political prisoners, it means free and fair elections  They can choose any form of government they like, but they have to have freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of expression.  The fundamental rights that we believe are endowed to every human being by our Creator.  That’s the kind of country that I’m interested in us having a relationship with.  And the embargo serves as leverage for us to be able to accomplish that.  You have, as we speak right now, a number of dissidents and hunger strikes in Cuba.  And their brave wives are marching every Sunday.  And they’re being beaten, taunted, hassled and harassed.  These are women.  They’re called the women in white.  They’re providing an extraordinary example of just how repressive this regime is and how it’s on the wrong side of history.

HE:  So I take it you mean the recognition of the end of the embargo has to come with the end of the Castro brothers?

Rubio:  Not only the end of the Castro brothers, but also political reform in the return of political freedom to the people of Cuba.  The embargo gives us leverage to negotiate that.  Cuba trades with every other country in the world.  The fact of the matter is that the U.S. embargo is not the reason their economy is failing.  Their economy is failing because they’ve embraced a combination of socialism and incompetence, which may be an oxymoron because they’re both the same thing.  The point being that I would love for the United States to have a close economic relationship with a free Cuba.  I think we’re going to see that very soon, God willing.

HE:  Now assuming that free and fair elections were held in this new environment that you described, would you support resuming diplomatic relations before the settlement of Cuban properties.

Rubio:  Before the settlement of Cuban properties in terms of their previous owners?  I think that’s something for the Cuban people to determine through their new political system that’s in place.  They have the right to that determination and to choose any form of government they please.  What I’m interested in is having the United States having strong diplomatic and economic ties to a free and fair Cuba. A lot of times past, the issue of property rights there was going to have to be confronted like it was confronted in Eastern Europe.  But I wouldn’t impose an external mandate.  I think the links between Cuban exiles and their families in Cuba are close enough that they will be able to establish some sort of an orderly process for property rights to be respected, either returned to their rightful owners or paid for their loss.

HE:  That leads to another question about the Obama Administration’s reverting back to the Clinton-era policy of travel and remittances by Cuban Americans to their families living on the island.  Does this help the cause of freedom?

Rubio:  It’s hard to tell people they can’t visit their dying grandmother or dying mom.  And I get that and it’s sad.  By the way, the Bush-era policies allowed people to travel once every three years.  Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening.  What’s happening now is that the Castro government is using travel and exile travel as a way to fund its repressive regime.  I also think it threatens the immigration status of Cubans.  Cubans come to the United States on the basis of the Cuban Adjustment Act, which says that Cubans are exiles.  Cubans are here because they have no political freedoms.  But it’s hard to argue you’re in exile when a year and a month after you arrive, you’re returning repeatedly to the country you’re exiled from.  How do you argue that you’re an exile when exile is supposed to be people that can’t return for political purposes?  And after 13 months in the country, you’re traveling back?  It threatens the exile status of the Cuban community.  And it also provides a source of hard currency for the Castro regime.  They use the dollars from remittances and from travel to fund their repressive operation.  I think it was wrong to lift those travel restrictions.


Monday, March 15, 2010

Why Are Florida Cubans Lukewarm On Rubio?

By David Gauvey Herbert

Marco Rubio was born in Miami to Cuban-born parents, became the first Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House, and he takes a hard line on U.S. policy towards Havana. Rubio leads Gov. Charlie Crist by approximately 28 percentage points in the race for the GOP Senate nomination, and in a matchup with Rep. Kendrick Meek, the presumptive Democratic nominee, he wins by 5 points.

So with Marco Rubio poised to become the nation's third Cuban-American senator, why haven't the rainmakers in Florida's Cuban-American donor community rallied to his side?

His challenges begin with the US-Cuba Democracy PAC. The Florida-based lobbying group is prolific, contributing more than $760,000 to congressional candidates in 2008. In this cycle, it had donated $225,000 to 111 House and Senate candidates across the political spectrum as of Feb. 21, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Rubio is not one of them.

Instead, the PAC has thrown in its lot with Meek, already having given him $7,500 -- more than any other Senate candidate and as much as it gave Reps. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Albio Sires, D-N.J., the top House recipients.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, the director for US-Cuba Democracy PAC's Washington operations, stressed that the committee has nothing against Rubio. At a December panel discussion hosted by the committee, Rubio, Crist and Meek all toed the same anti-Castro line, he noted. So then why Meek?

"He's the only one who's been in Congress and has a long track record of being an outspoken advocate for human rights and a strong Cuba policy," Claver-Carone said. "Charlie and Marco are great, and they would be great members of Congress, but they haven't had that yet. They've talked about it and they've advocated, but never from a legislative perspective."

Claver-Carone added that the PAC follows an "incumbency rule" in its giving and considers Meek an incumbent of sorts since he is currently in the House. But the PAC gave $7,000 to former Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., in his 2004 campaign to become the first Cuban-American senator, even though Martinez had never served in Congress.

The 25 Cuban-Americans who make up US-Cuba Democracy PAC's board, which includes some of the biggest rainmakers in South Florida, haven't rallied behind Rubio either. As of the end of the fourth quarter 2009, its board members had donated $31,200 to Crist, $14,950 to Meek, and $73,800 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, but just $8,150 to Rubio.

The donation numbers for the first quarter of 2010 are not yet available, and several members of the board did not return phone calls about their donations.

Rubio, despite his dominance in the polls, trails both Crist and Meek in cash on hand. Rubio had around $2 million in his coffers at the end of 2009, while Meek had $3.37 million and Crist had $7.56 million.

Does Rubio have a Cuban-American problem? No recent polls have broken down Cuban-American support for Rubio and Crist. But a Public Policy Polling survey released March 10 shows Crist faring better than Rubio with Hispanics in a general election matchup. Crist wins Hispanic voters -- Cuban-Americans account for close to half of Florida's Hispanic vote -- by a 43-22 margin over Meek in a potential matchup. Rubio, meanwhile, trails Meek by a 48-35 gap among Hispanics. Both Republicans would defeat Meek, according to the poll, but Crist enjoys a wider margin of victory, thanks in part to this differential.

Crist has a history of electoral success with this group: He won 70 percent of Cuban-American voters in his 2006 race for the governor's mansion.

Alex Burgos, a spokesman for Rubio's campaign, said he is confident his candidate has Cuban-American support.

"Marco is a product of this community," he said. "He is the proud son of Cuban exiles."

Still, while Rubio would love to carry the Cuban vote, Little Havana isn't his base. His most strident supporters have largely been white conservatives -- including Tea Partiers nationally. They are the ones who shook the rafters at his CPAC speech last month and continue to pour money into his coffers with one-day online fundraising drives, or "money bombs." Moderate Floridians still favor Crist, but among self-described conservative voters, Rubio trounces the governor by a 69-12 margin in the PPP poll.

Rubio, meanwhile, has taken stances at odds with the Latino community. He is against any immigration reform bill that provides a path to citizenship for the nation's 12 million illegal aliens; a spokesman said Rubio believes the 1986 amnesty was "a mistake." He also opposes counting undocumented immigrants in the Census for the purposes of federal aid and congressional reapportionment.

That stance drew a stern rebuke from Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. The organization honored Rubio in 2007 when he became the first Cuban-American leader of the Florida House, but "that was a very different Marco Rubio," Vargas told the Miami Herald last week.

"I know that in visiting Florida there has been some significant disappointment in the positions he's taken," Vargas told

Cuban-Americans who want Washington to take a hard line with Havana need allies in Congress more than ever. One of Congress' most outspoken advocates for the Cuban embargo, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., announced last month that he will not run for re-election. Former Sen. Martinez, another strong anti-Castro voice, resigned in September before the end of his term.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, has tried to offer Havana an olive branch by loosening travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans. The US-Cuba Democracy PAC and other hardliners want Havana to release political prisoners and legalize opposition political parties before Washington offers any carrots.

It's worth noting that Crist has had problems in South Florida, too. Diaz-Balart and his brother, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R), who are two of Congress' most anti-Castro members, pulled their endorsement of Crist in December. At the time, Lincoln Diaz-Balart remarked cryptically, "We take our endorsements seriously, but the governor knows why we withdrew and he left us with no alternative."


Posted on Wed, Dec. 30, 2009
Crist off his game

Charlie Crist is off his game. Way off his game, which was spectacular when it was good. He had the easy rhythm of public life down perfectly. Deferential to the Legislature (even when it didn't deserve it), easily accessible to the media (on a first-name basis with most) and wildly popular with most Floridians, Democrats as well as Republicans. Nowadays, Democrats have pretty much abandoned him, and hard-core GOP conservatives are flocking to Marco Rubio. Charlie's not only lost his mo, he's lost his mojo.
That was sadly obvious at the annual luncheon of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, which brought together nearly 400 of the biggest movers and shakers in the Cuban-American community last week to hear all the Senate candidates. It's a tribute to PAC's clout that all four agreed to appear in the same room at the same time. They wouldn't debate or take questions, but it was still the most important moment yet in this young Senate campaign. A very good moment for one of the candidates (Marco Rubio), pretty good to fair for two others (Maurice Ferre and Kendrick Meek) and an awful one for Crist.

Each candidate spoke for five to seven minutes, giving everyone a chance to compare and contrast. And what a contrast it was.

Democrat Ferre read a well-crafted, thoughtful speech linking progress on human and civil rights in Cuba to any future U.S. diplomatic overtures.

Fellow Democrat Meek pointed out that he has consistently voted against relaxing travel and trade with Cuba, followed the advice of his three Cuban-American congressional colleagues and has the president's ear.

Eloquent paean to free Cuba

Rubio delivered an eloquent and unscripted paean to a free Cuba that had intellectual heft and emotional power, particularly his disdain for Americans willing to put on moral blinders in order to sell Cuba food and agricultural products .

That left Charlie, who got up and said sincerely -- his favored leitmotif -- that he loves freedom and hopes Cuba will one day be free and a ``shining city on a hill'' like the United States is to the world. Then he told the story of his grandfather, Adam Christodoulou, who came to this country from Greece at the age of 8, shined shoes, saved his money and became an American success story.

It's a lovely story, although telling it over and over in political settings seems to both cheapen its value and aggrandize the teller. It certainly resonated with a roomful of Cuban immigrants, but I suspect the group at the Biltmore most wanted to hear the governor speak substantively about Cuba policy issues -- trade, travel, the embargo, freeing political prisoners and dealing with the Castros and their successors. From Crist, however, nary a word, only his hope that Cuba will one day be free. Inexplicably, the governor didn't refer to a set of talking points on Cuba that had been carefully prepared for him. ``He decided to ad lib for some reason,'' says one of the people who prepared the talking points for Crist. ``I don't know why.''

Key endorsement lost

More bad news for Crist was delivered the next day: Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, arguably the two most popular Cuban-American politicians in South Florida, had withdrawn their endorsement. ``He knows the reason why,'' was all that Lincoln would say publicly.

One reason, I'm told, involves Crist ignoring Lincoln's recommendation for the appointment of a Gadsden County prosecutor to a local judgeship. Seems that prosecutor had mentored the congressman's son, Daniel, a law student at Florida State.

But there's more to it than pique over a rejected judicial appointment. The Diaz-Balart brothers have a close relationship with Kendrick Meek, who has followed their lead and that of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen on Cuba. The brothers were evidently feeling that by endorsing Crist they'd betrayed Meek, who sat on the sidelines instead of endorsing their Democratic opponents last year. So, the Diaz-Balarts met privately with Meek and his mother, former Congresswoman Carrie Meek, before the PAC luncheon and said they'll be sitting on the sidelines during the 2010 Senate race.

They'd told Crist a few weeks earlier, but it took a call from Lincoln's top aide last week to get the Crist campaign to remove the Diaz-Balarts' names as endorsers from the governor's campaign website.

Crist can still win the GOP Senate nomination without Cuban-American votes, but it will be very hard. Harder yet if he doesn't win over, or win back, hard-core conservatives and mainstream Republicans who are gravitating toward Rubio. The latest poll shows them tied -- tied! -- at 43 percent in a race that was Crist's to lose. Unless he straightens up, toughens up and smartens up, he will.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

NCC CWS Letter to President re Religious Travel

May 4, 2010

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

We uphold you, Mrs. Obama, and your family in our fervent prayers, with every good wish for the health of our nation and its leadership toward a more peaceful and just world.

As leaders of Church World Service and the National Council of Churches in the USA, we write to you on behalf of our member communions to request that you end the restrictions on religious travel to Cuba. We appreciate your expressed willingness to review and revise long-standing U.S. policy toward Cuba and have
welcomed your removal of restrictions on Cuban-American travel. We urgently ask that you now change the Cuba policy of the United States in ways that will assist the churches in their work and have wider benefits for our country and for the people of Cuba.

Since 2005, U.S. church denominations, mission agencies and ecumenical organizations at the national and regional levels have suffered from severe restrictions on religious travel. Our institutions are currently eligible only for very limited licenses. Some of our institutions have been unable to secure even these limited licenses.

In 2008 we addressed an earlier letter to you wherein we stated:

These impractical restrictions have reduced our ability to send religious delegations to Cuba, limited our opportunities to accompany and support our Cuban church partners, and have the effect of severely limiting participation in Cuba missions by many U.S. churches and congregants.

Churches across the theological spectrum have called for the elimination of these restrictions which have now interrupted relationships, fellowship, and exchanges which began more than one hundred and twenty-five years ago.

Insomuch that Congressional action is not required, we ask you to lift these restrictions. This is a matter of direct institutional importance to U.S. communions and religious institutions.

Beyond this immediate step, we also ask that OFAC liberally grant visas for U.S. travel to Cuban pastors and other religious leaders; and, work closely with Congress to end the travel ban for all Americans. We are convinced that it is time to change this ineffective and counter-productive U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Thank you for your considered attention to these concerns of the churches.

Respectfully yours,

Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon
General Secretary
National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA

Rev. John L. McCullough
Executive Director and CEO
Church World Service

c/o Martin Shupack, Church World Service, 110 Maryland Ave., Suite 404, Washington, DC 20002; 202-481-6934