March 25, 2010

Fidel Castro to the U.S. on health care: What took ya so long

The Associated Press: "It perhaps was not the endorsement President Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress were looking for.

"Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro on Thursday declared passage of American health care reform 'a miracle' and a major victory for Obama's presidency, but couldn't help chide the United States for taking so long to enact what communist Cuba achieved decades ago.

" 'We consider health reform to have been an important battle and a success of his (Obama's) government,' " Castro wrote in an essay published in state media, adding that it would strengthen the president's hand against lobbyists and 'mercenaries.' "

February 18, 2010

Maryland congressmen to Clinton and Cuba: Get the contractor home

With the US and Cuba scheduled to hold migration talks in Havana Friday, the wife of a detained contractor has released a video asking for her husband to be released.

"Alan has done nothing wrong and we need him home," Judy Gross says in the video, saying she's hoping US and Cuban officials will agree on a way to bring him home. The Maryland contractor has been held in a high security prison since December.

The video comes as members of the Maryland congressional delegation penned a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, asking her to use the talks to "forcefully raise the issue of the unacceptability of Mr. Gross' detention and demand his immediate release."

February 11, 2010

Miami Republican Lincoln Diaz-Balart to retire

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a passionate defender and architect of legislation to strengthen the U.S. embargo against Cuba, is expected to announce today he won't seek reelection to Congress.

Sources told the Miami Herald that the Miami Republican will make the announcement at a press conference scheduled for noon Thursday at Florida International University.

Diaz-Balart had indicated last summer that he was interested in leaving Congress, where he has served since 1992, saying he was "seriously considering'' a request from Gov. Charlie Crist that he consider being appointed temporarily to the Senate.

His departure will create a double shakeup: his brother, Mario Diaz-Balart, is expected to run for Lincoln's safer, more Republican seat, opening up Mario's seat.

January 07, 2010

Could Senate retirements affect U.S. Cuba policy?

The departure of Democratic senators Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan could effect ongoing efforts in Congress to ease U.S. sanctions against Cuba. Both senators -- Dorgan in particular -- have championed efforts to ease trade and travel restrictions against the communist government and their support would be key in the Senate.

"From an ideological point of view, no senator has been a bigger opponent of U.S. policy than Dodd, and from a business perspective, no one has advocated doing business with the Castro regime more than Dorgan,'' said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, which lobbies in support of the embargo. He noted the pair still has several months left in their tenure, but added, "it's a game changer for 2011.''

Both senators last March introduced legislation that would allow all Americans to travel to Cuba. Dorgan in 2000 authored legislation that opened up agricultural trade with Cuba and has been a major supporter of normalizing relations with the island. Just last month, Dorgan succeeded in softening restrictions on agricultural exports to the island, but complained that another proposal to strip funding to Radio and TV Marti was "emasculated'' and failed to pass.

Sarah Stephens, the executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, said there's still support in the Senate for easing restrictions. Still, she said, "Our hope is that since it's been such a priority for both of them that maybe there will be an extra effort during this last period of their tenure to make it happen.

"There are a lot in the Senate who want the policy to change, but the ones who have stepped up are the two of them,'' she said.

November 30, 2009

Rumsfeld and Gitmo: Another NYT correction?

Last week, an item I posted here so intrigued Ron Brynaert, the executive editor at The Raw Story, that he spent the better part of a day tracking down references to the "worst of the worst" quote in an effort to find out who originally said it about detainees at Guantanamo.

As you may recall, my post was triggered by a phone inquiry from Donald Rumsfeld's office to Carol Rosenberg, who's covered Guantanamo from the beginning. Rumsfeld's office wanted to know when the then Secretary of Defense, who's widely credited with coining the phrase, had spoken those words; Rumsfeld's staff had yet to find it in any transcript. Rosenberg told the caller that she didn't think Rumsfeld had ever said it; she credits the phrase to Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert, who was the Guantanamo detention center commander when the first prisoners arrived on Jan. 11, 2002.

In an e-mail message to me, Brynaert said that the first published reference he could find to the words was in fact a Rosenberg story attributing them to "the Marine commander." That story ran on Jan. 20, 2002. (The back story here: Rosenberg recorded the phrase and Lehnert attribution in her notes on the arrival of the first prisoners, but didn't use them in her first story because, she said, it didn't seem like a particularly insightful comment and she had much to say in limited space.)

The next reference Brynaert found was a Jan. 23, 2002, transcript of a White House press briefing in which spokesman Ari Fleischer, in response to a question about the prisoners, said, "These are not mere innocents, these are among the worst of the worst." That story was followed five days later by an American Forces Press Service story, published on the Pentagon's Web site Jan. 28, 2002. That story has the words coming from Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, who at the time was the Pentagon's primary briefer on operations in Afghanistan. "They are bad guys," the story quoted Stufflebeem as saying, referring to prisoners in both Afghanistan and Guantanamo. "They are the worst of the worst, and if let out on the street, they will go back to the proclivity of trying to kill Americans and others."

So when does Rumsfeld come into the picture? According to Brynaert's research, not until Oct. 23, 2002, in a New York Times story that claims Rumsfeld used the phrase "earlier this year." When precisely isn't said. Brynaert suggests that Rumsfeld "most probably used it off the record at some point." Maybe, but I'm betting not. As his staff apparently has discovered, Rumsfeld never actually uttered the phrase.

Does it matter? As Brynaert noted in his e-mail to me, "since Cheney used it the other month and other Bush officials and Pentagon officials have used it since, it appears to be a talking point." Clearly. But it's such a touchstone quote, wouldn't it be good for history to know its origin?

And it wasn't a very accurate observation. As Rosenberg pointed out in a story she did Jan. 17, 2008, of the 20 prisoners who arrived aboard the first flight to Guantanamo, prompting Lehnert's description, only one has been charged with a war crime -- the Australian David Hicks, who's served his time and is at home in Australia. Six others were released or transferred out of the prison; 12 others, as far as is known, remain at Guantanamo, but uncharged. As for No. 20, Rosenberg's never been able to figure out who he was, amid suggestions that he might have been an informant, aboard the flight to spy on the other 19.

November 20, 2009

House foreign affairs chief says no harm, no foul on Ros-Lehtinen's brush with military brass

California Democrat Howard Berman said he's not particularly exercised over the spat between the ranking Republican on his House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting and retired Gen. Barry McCaffery.

The tussle came as McCaffery testified in favor of lifting the decades-old ban against travel to Cuba. Miami Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen -- who backs the travel ban as a sanction against the Castro regime -- was asking McCaffery about previous statements he's made when he took exception to her aggressive questioning and suggested she not only questioned his national security creds -- he's the former commander of the U.S. Southern Command and a former U.S. drug czar -- but also denigrated him by calling him "Mr." and not "General."

Asked whether "anyone went too far," at the hearing, Berman at first said he'd refrain from stepping into the mix.

"I'd advise myself to not comment," the commitee chairman said, adding that "By and large, I err on the side of letting it all hang out there. So, I don't think anyone should be hauled to the Ethics Committee for anything that was said today. And the General gave back as well as he took."

Ros-Lehtinen said it was also pointed out to her that she neglected to call James Cason -- the former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana -- "Ambassador Cason." Cason, of course, sides with Ros-Lehtinen and says lifting the ban on travel to Cuba would "amount to giving away future leverage for nothing in return."

November 19, 2009

Congresswoman enlivens Cuba hearing with a tussle with a retired general

Passions were running high at today's House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting over travel to Cuba -- but perhaps none more so than Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen who tussled with retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey.

McCaffrey raised the Miami Republican's hackles with his testimony that Cuba represents no risk to national security and the travel ban should be scrapped since it hurts longtime U.S. interests.

But during questioning, he took exception to Ros-Lehtinen, whom he said appeared to question his national security credentials and called him "Mr. McCaffrey,'' rather than "General.''

"To refute the argument that I had offered to the committee, she seemed to be implying my lack of commitment to U.S. national security, which is a silly thing for her to do,'' McCaffrey told reporters after the hearing. "She stated a very carefully chosen way to denigrate my military credentials, which she is not authorized to do.''

Ros-Lehtinen -- who often notes she has family members in the service -- said she disagreed with McCaffrey's stance on Cuba, but "did not mean in any way to not respect his service by calling him Mr. and not General.''

She said she had written down the questions she wanted to pose to McCaffrey and that "General'' appears in her handwritten notes

Florida senator's first foreign relations foray draws a rebuke

New Florida Sen. George LeMieux's first foray into foreign relations has drawn brickbats from former high-ranking State Department officials who say his effort to block the Obama administration's new ambassador to Brazil is damaging U.S. relations with Latin America.

"This continuing, prolonged vacancy sends an unintended signal that the United States does not consider Brazil an important relationship,'' the nine former assistant secretaries of state wrote in a letter to LeMieux, urging him to lift his opposition to nominee Tom Shannon.

Shannon had triggered the ire of South Florida Cuban Americans who believed he wasn't tough enough on the Castro regime during his tenure as a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under President George W. Bush.

Senate staffers suggested Wednesday that LeMieux -- who was appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist to fill the seat vacated by Mel Martinez -- could be trying to burnish his Cuba credentials to help Crist, who faces a Cuban-American opponent in the Republican primary for the Senate seat.

LeMieux said it was his responsibility as Florida's senator to vet the nominee, noting that he had heard concerns about Shannon's record from constituents and fellow members of Congress.

"I feel like I have a role and a responsibility far greater than other senators do in terms of anything that deals with Latin America, and I take that job seriously,'' said LeMieux, who will be a "special guest" at a DC fundraiser Friday for Crist. "This is about the entire hemisphere. This is about Venezuela, El Salvador, Bolivia, Colombia and Brazil and Cuba and the role that Mr. Shannon played . . . and the role he will play. We are burning the midnight oil here to make sure I'm doing the best job I can for 18 million Floridians, and that's my motivation.''

Bloomberg News reports the extended hold could cost Boeing Inc. up to $7.5 billion.

November 17, 2009

Cuba responds to report that suggests money plays a role in U.S.-Cuba policy

The Cuban Interests Section -- Havana's defacto embassy in Washington -- says a recent report tying campaign contributions to U.S.-Cuba policy "reveals the tip of the iceberg of what moves behind U.S. policy
toward Cuba.

"It also shows how money rules policy toward Cuba, not principles, ethics, justice and morality," the press office's Alberto González said in an e-mail. "The right of Americans to travel to Cuba does not constitute a 'gesture toward Cuba' but a constitutional right of American citizens. However, it is remarkable how these
legislators accept money for something that goes against the very constitutional rights of the American people."

The report found supporters of the embargo had contributed more than $11 million to fend off efforts to weaken sanctions against the government.

Among the big beneficiaries: New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, who heads up efforts to raise money for Senate Democrats.

Continue reading "Cuba responds to report that suggests money plays a role in U.S.-Cuba policy" ┬╗

October 16, 2009

Practicing for life on Castro's Cuba?

Arizona Republican Rep. Jeff Flake -- who has long led efforts to lift the embargo against Cuba -- recently spent a week on a deserted island in the Pacific, practicing his survival skills.

That prompted the blog, Capitol Hill Cubans, to posit that the anti-embargo lawmaker was practicing for life on Cuba, where it notes that Cuban dictator Raul Castro has "announced widespread shortages, including that of toilet paper, for the Cuban people."Images

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