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Florida Republicans Lead Charge Against Cuba Outreach

By William E. Gibson and Erika Pesantes, Sun Sentinel (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Now comes the backlash to President Barack Obama’s outreach to Cuba.

Florida Republicans are leading the charge against Obama’s new policy to end the isolation of Cuba, setting up a clash in Congress next year and a point of debate along the presidential campaign trail.

The controversy gives U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio a crusade to lead in the Senate and gives former Gov. Jeb Bush a cause to promote if he decides to run for president. The issue raises their profile on the national stage and sets up a clear contrast with Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the presumptive Democratic front-runner for president.

Republicans are looking for ways to block Obama from carrying out his plan to normalize relations with the Cuban government, set up an embassy in Havana, expand American travel to the island and create phone and Internet links.

“We’ll do everything we can to address that in the days and weeks to come,” Rubio (R-FL) said Thursday.

He stood alongside outraged and heartbroken relatives of the men who were shot down while flying Brothers to the Rescue planes off Cuba’s coast in 1996. The relatives clutched a poster of the men killed — Carlos A. Costa, Pablo Morales, Mario M. de la Pena and Armando Alejandre Jr. — calling them martyrs and showing their photographs. “Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied,” it read.

“We were so heartbroken yesterday when we heard the news,” said Miriam de la Pena, mother of one of the men. “As a matter of fact, we were shocked. I didn’t want to speak to anyone for many hours just trying to absorb what had just happened. Once again, Feb. 24, 1996, was felt in our community.”

Rubio has indicated he will try to deny funding for a U.S. embassy in Havana and to block confirmation of any proposed ambassador to Cuba.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week he would defer to Rubio on Cuba matters. Other Republicans were quick to join the fight.

“I will do all in my power to block the use of funds to open an embassy in Cuba. Normalizing relations with Cuba is a bad idea at a bad time,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said in a tweet.

Florida’s Cuban-Americans in Congress are at the forefront of the backlash, just as they have long influenced U.S. policy on Cuba.

U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican, expressed a quiet outrage over the prospect of diplomatic relations with Cuba before making gains in “basic steps toward freedom,” including the liberation of all political prisoners and freedom of the press, political parties and labor unions.

His GOP colleague Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Miami) added: “The Cuban people are no more free today than they were before Obama’s terrible deal.”

Rubio has been down this road. Two years ago, he put a hold on a State Department nominee, stalling her confirmation, until the Obama administration agreed to tighten restrictions on travel to Cuba. The result forced tour groups to set a rigorous agenda of “purposeful travel” — no lolling at the beach or hanging out at nightclubs. Tour leaders must navigate a lengthy process to acquire licenses to travel — limits that Obama now plans to ease.

Republicans also are challenging Obama’s right to impose a sweeping change, saying it violates a law that prevents lifting the embargo until Cuba accepts political reforms and releases political prisoners.

Bush, meanwhile, staked out his hard-line position on Cuba earlier this month, saying the embargo should be strengthened, not eased or lifted. To the applause of a U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC gathering in Coral Gables, Fla., Bush said the embargo should be lifted only “when there is progress on basic human rights for the Cuban people, including the release of political prisoners, fair and free elections, respect for the rule of law, the cessation of destabilizing countries in the region and the embrace of a free-market economy.”

Bush’s position contrasts with Clinton’s call for an end to the embargo, which she said has clearly failed to bring democracy to Cuba and has created hardship for the Cuban people.

Both sides are drawing battle lines in Congress and in the 2016 presidential race on an issue that divides Florida, the biggest swing state and home to the largest Cuban-American population. Cuba policy has roused less interest in other states, but Obama’s bold action has drawn nationwide attention.

Democrats are counting on indications that Florida voters, including Cuban-Americans, are becoming more supportive of closer ties to Cuba.

A survey of Cuban-Americans in the Miami area by Florida International University, released in June, found that 68 percent favored re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, while 69 percent supported lifting travel restrictions.

“In South Florida, it’s always been a salient issue. There, I think, a moderate policy on Cuba is politically very sustainable,” said William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert at American University in Washington. “For a very large proportion of the Cuban-American community, they want to be able to go back and visit family.”

(Gibson reported from Washington and Pesantes from Miami.)

AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan

Oil Driller In Everglades Forced Out Of Florida

By William E. Gibson, Sun Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — State officials have driven a Texas wildcatter out of Florida, signaling tougher restrictions on oil drilling in the Everglades.

Prodded by environmentalists and community activists, the state yanked all drilling permits held by the Dan A. Hughes Co. seven months after it was caught using fracking-like methods to blast open rock near underground aquifers.

The company’s banishment was a victory for protesters across the state trying to quell an intense search for oil near wildlife refuges and water supplies. It also indicates an increasingly tough stance by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, apparently in response to public pressure and criticism that it lacks the willingness and enforcement power to rein in new methods of drilling. At the least, the Hughes episode indicates strong resistance in Florida to fracking-like methods — high-pressure injections of water and chemicals to extract oil deposits.

“Fracking in Florida is dead,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida. “It’s a toxic issue now. There’s nothing like a company making a mess of things to help educate the public about how you can’t trust these drilling technologies.”

While celebrating their success, drilling opponents now are taking aim at plans by other companies to conduct seismic tests and explore energy supplies under hundreds of thousands of acres in southwest Florida. Opponents also hope to block offshore energy exploration along Florida’s east coast.

The Obama administration this month opened the way to offshore seismic testing from Delaware to Florida. Federal officials said they will consider applications from companies that want to send ships along the coast to blast sound waves underwater to help identify deposits of oil and natural gas.

“We would hate to see that part of the ocean opened for oil drilling,” Draper said. “Tests lead to leases, and leases lead to wells. The BP spill (in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010) taught us that where you have wells, you have spills. And where you have spills, you have destruction of the economy and environment.”

The rush to drill near the Everglades and to test along the East Coast show ongoing pressure to boost energy supplies and make Americans less dependent on unstable foreign sources, such as Venezuela and Iraq. Proponents see exciting prospects for bringing in jobs, tax revenue and royalties to Florida.

The seismic testing “will give naysayers exactly what they say they want by identifying places where we are not going to go, if the science tells us the oil’s not there,” said David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, an industry group in Tallahassee that lobbies for expanded drilling. “The reality is that by doing this kind of science, we may be reducing our footprint. But we are hoping that it just blows up and shows lots and lots of potential (deposits).”

Mica doubted that the Hughes Co.’s retreat will chill the rush for black gold in Florida. He called it an exceptional case that shows the need for energy companies to engage communities near well sites and to communicate effectively with state regulators.

Hughes is one of several smaller, independent out-of-state energy companies — often called wildcatters — bent on using horizontal drilling methods to tap a band of deposits near and under the Big Cypress National Preserve in the western Everglades. At one production well near Naples, the company got caught around New Year’s Day using high-pressure injections of acid and water to blast open limestone, a practice critics call fracking.

The Department of Environmental Protection stopped the acidic fracturing but allowed the company to continue pumping oil. Four months later, the state agency fined Hughes $25,000 as part of a settlement, known as a consent order. Community activists and Collier County commissioners, already wary of expanded drilling near neighborhoods and refuges, challenged the order, saying it did not go far enough. And opponents began rounding up support statewide for new regulations to ban fracking.

On July 18, the agency revoked all permits held by Hughes and filed a lawsuit seeking more than $100,000 in penalties. DEP Secretary Herschel T. Vinyard Jr. accused the company of alarming the community and said “revocation of their permits is the only option that offers the assurance that Hughes will not cause damage to our treasured natural resources.”

Stunned by the agency’s escalating complaints, the Hughes Co. pulled out of Florida, saying it would shift its resources to projects in other states. Spokesman David Blackmon said the company had cooperated with the agency and that the turnabout came suddenly despite “constant and open dialogue.”

Drilling opponents expect the state agency to scrutinize future permit requests more carefully, especially any plans akin to fracking. But they are pushing state leaders to go much further by banning fracking in Florida, limiting drilling in the Everglades and imposing new regulations on the industry.

“This new oil drilling now is on everyone’s radar,” said Karen Dwyer, a community activist in Naples who led the opposition.

“I hope that what happened down here will give people on the East Coast hope and motivation to stop the offshore drilling that Obama opened up,” she said. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

Photo: rickz via Flickr

Immigrants Decry Detention Quota

By William E. Gibson, Sun Sentinel

WASHINGTON — Every day, hundreds of immigrants suspected of living in the country illegally are held behind bars in Florida, part of a controversial crackdown that helps fill a federal detention-bed quota.

Critics call the quota a boondoggle that benefits privately run prisons and spreads anguish through immigrant communities. Defenders say it compels federal officials to enforce immigration law and discourages illegal migration.

Now President Barack Obama, U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), and Florida immigrant leaders are trying to scale back or eliminate the quota, which requires detaining an average of 34,000 immigrants a day nationwide.

“You have this broken immigration system with a bottleneck of cases, but they are still going after people to detain them and meet this quota, while racking up costs to the taxpayers,” said Melissa McGuire-Maniau, of Winter Park. Her husband was detained in Pompano Beach before being released and becoming a permanent legal resident.

“There are thousands of cases like my husband’s. We know it when we see friends and family who are here today and vanished tomorrow. A mother or husband or friend goes to work but doesn’t make it home, and everyone is worried sick. Then you find out three days later they are in detention.”

She and other activists say the “bed mandate” encourages officials to pick up immigrants who commit minor violations or get flagged while seeking documents.

Removing the quota would mean that authorities “would not go out of their way to detain people for minor offenses or because they look like an immigrant,” said Marlene Dindyal, 49, of Port St. Lucie. She was detained for three years and deported to Trinidad before a federal court ruled that she had not committed a deportable offense and allowed her to return.

The quota began in 2009 when an immigration crackdown led to record numbers of deportations. The crackdown continues, even as Congress considers legislation that would allow millions of foreign residents to remain here legally.

“Many of the people being detained and deported would be eligible for relief if a comprehensive reform bill were to pass,” said Cheryl Little, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice in Miami. “It’s beyond absurd to require that X-number be arrested and detained on a daily basis. It’s a boondoggle for the private prison industry.”

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency spends about $2 billion a year on detention — more than $5 million a day. Some inmates are kept in federal facilities such as the Krome Detention Center in Miami. Some are in county jails. Most are held in privately run prisons such as the Broward Transitional Center, a 700-bed compound in Pompano Beach.

The agency reported last week that 1,526 detainees were being held in Florida facilities as of March 15.

Some detainees from Central Florida are sent to Broward or other facilities, and some are held briefly at county jails. Orange County Jail officials say they housed an average of 98 immigrant detainees per day from July 2012 through June 2013 at a daily cost of $103 each. The county got $2.2 million from federal agencies in fiscal 2013 to pay for it.

More than $127 million was allotted for detention contracts in Florida from October 2011 through last year, according to a compilation of federal figures by CIVIC, an advocacy group for detainees and their families.

One of the largest prison companies is the Boca Raton-based Geo Group, which runs the Broward center and 97 other detention sites worldwide.

Geo spends heavily to promote its interests in Washington. The company has given $56,375 to political groups and candidates in 2013-14 and spent $460,000 on lobbying in 2013, according to a compilation of federal reports by the Center for Responsive Politics.

“As a matter of long-standing policy, our company does not take a position on or advocate for any specific immigration policies,” a Geo spokesman said last week. “Our company’s efforts are aimed exclusively at educating decision-makers on the benefits of public-private partnerships, which have been independently validated to generate savings for taxpayers while providing high-quality services and improved programs.”

Some Republicans in Congress promote the quota, saying it ensures that the Obama administration enforces immigration law. Their views are echoed by some Floridians who think enforcement remains lax.

“Some of these people they apprehend and hold should have been deported as soon as possible to make room for others who they pick up, instead of releasing them,” said Bill Landes of Winter Haven, a board member of Floridians for Immigration Enforcement.

Caught in the middle, Obama is trying to show he is enforcing the law while making the process more humane. He proposed a budget earlier this month that calls for easing the bed mandate while providing enough funding for 30,539 detention beds.

“ICE will continue to focus on the most serious criminals and continue to achieve record criminal removal levels at a reduced cost under this proposed budget,” ICE Deputy Director Daniel Ragsdale told Congress.

Deutch is leading efforts to remove the mandate. “This is a $2 billion line item that strips away the discretion of law enforcement to do its job,” Deutch said.

“There are people, including at the Broward Transitional Center, who have been detained just to occupy beds — people who are no threat to the community, who don’t pose a flight risk, people with full-time jobs and families in the community, and students as well. Especially in South Florida, this isn’t just an immigration issue, it’s a human rights issue.”

Photo: Anunska Sampredo via Flickr