White House preparing new rules to weaken Cuba embargo

The White House is drafting sweeping regulations to further weaken the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba that would ease restrictions on U.S. companies and make it safer for Americans to travel there, U.S. government sources said on Thursday.

The regulations could be announced as soon as Friday.

U.S. companies would be allowed to establish offices in Cuba for the first time in more than half a century, according to a draft of the new rules seen by Reuters.

The regulations make it easier for airlines and cruise ships to import parts and technology to improve safety in Cuba; loosen restrictions on software exports; and allow authorized companies to establish subsidiaries with Cuba, possibly via joint ventures with Cuban firms such as state telecommunications monopoly Etecsa.

However, they do not authorize private financing of trade nor change current rules on who can travel to Cuba, though it is possible regulations could still be modified by other agencies or updated later in the year, according to people familiar with the White House's thinking on Cuba policy.

There was no immediate comment from President Barack Obama's administration.

"These are the most comprehensive expansion in U.S. trade and investment regulations with Cuba in decades," said John Kavulich, head of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, who is familiar with the new rules.

"The result will be an exponential increase in interest towards Cuba by U.S. companies and pressure upon Cuba by those same companies to permit access to the marketplace," Kavulich said.

The regulations expand on others that Obama announced in January to ease the 53-year-old embargo of the Communist-ruled island.

Those rules were an initial gesture after Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced on Dec. 17 they would move toward normal relations between the former Cold War foes for the first time in more than half a century.

Although legislation seeking to promote commercial ties between the two countries has support from Democrats and some Republicans, efforts to pass bills that would ease trade and travel restrictions have been stymied by opposition from Republican congressional leaders.

Given the resistance from Congress, Obama is using executive powers to ease the trade barriers.

The administration was preparing the new regulations as Jose Cabanas, a veteran diplomat, on Thursday became Cuba's first ambassador to the United States in 54 years.

Washington has yet to name an ambassador to Cuba.

Cuba is also preparing for a three-night visit from Pope Francis starting on Saturday.

One advocate of U.S. engagement with Cuba who has been briefed on the matter said administration officials first discussed the regulations with supporters of Obama's Cuba policy in July.

"The focus is on ease of doing business, and (the regulations) have been in hopper to be released for a couple of weeks. Interesting that they're choosing it to coincide with the pope's visit," said Felice Gorordo, co-founder of the Cuban-American group Roots of Hope.

  • Published in Now

Secretive White House meeting reveals Obama's plan to visit Cuba in 2016

A secretive White House meeting on Cuba last week revealed that President Obama plans to visit the island nation early next year, and also discussed the controversial idea of the Cuban government opening consular offices in Miami.

After hailing embassy openings in Washington and Havana last week, the White House held an off-schedule, private meeting on Thursday with U.S. officials involved in the administration's Cuba policy. Nearly 80 activist members of the Cuban-American community from Florida and across the United States — mostly Democrats — were also there.

Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama's closest advisers, was on hand, along with White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of State for the western hemisphere.

The White House declined to talk about the meeting, and referred questions about the meeting to the State Department. A State Department spokesman then referred the same questions to the Cuban embassy, which was already closed for the day.

According to sources familiar with the meeting, Rhodes told the group that President Obama is considering visiting the island nation early next year, depending on progress in U.S.-Cuba relations.

While that historic visit would likely help Obama cement his legacy as the president who started to open up bilateral relations, it could be marred by or even delayed by Cuba's arrest of dissidents. Those arrests have continued despite Obama's gestures to Cuba, and could put Obama at risk of appearing to be too friendly with a country that often arrests members of political or religious groups dozens at a time.

Eduardo Jose Padron, the current president of Miami-Dade College who came to the U.S. as a refugee at the age of 15, used the White House meeting to ask about the state of human rights in Cuba, and State Department officials acknowledged that it is a dangerous time for dissidents on the island, one participant told the Examiner.

Andy Gomez, a retired assistant provost and dean of the University of Miami's School of International Studies, said that so far, the Castro regime doesn't appear to be changing its ways. Gomez previously served on the Brookings Institution's Cuba Task Force from 2008 to 2010, and told the Washington Examiner Cuba needs to demonstrate a stronger commitment to human rights before Obama travels there or the U.S. agrees to allow it to open a consulate in Florida.

"Up until now, the Cuban government hasn't even brought Cuban coffee to the table … I don't see any signs of the Cuban government loosening up their control," he said.

Down and Out With Hillary Clinton

Pity Hillary. Evicted from her home, jobless, and, as she evocatively put it to Diane Sawyer, “dead broke.” Such were the perilous straits of the Clinton family in the early winter months of 2001, as they packed their belongings at the White House, and scurried away like refugees from Washington toward a harsh and uncertain future.

“We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt,” Hillary recalled. “We had no money when we got there, and we struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages, for houses, for Chelsea’s education. You know, it was not easy.”

Hillary was on the cusp of middle age and, at this point, for all practical purposes a single mother. She hadn’t had a paying job in years and the prospects of resurrecting her law career were dim. She was emotionally drained, physically debilitated and hounded wherever she went by the dark forces of the right. All in all, her prospects on that cold January morning were grave.

With no life-ring to cling to, Hillary was forced to work furiously to save her family from a Dickensian existence of privation and destitution. Though she spared Sawyer the harrowing details, we can recreate some of her most grueling tasks. This meant giving several speeches a week to demanding audiences for $200,000 a pop, burning the midnight oil to complete her book so that she wouldn’t have to return her $8 million advance, booking Bill’s speeches at $500,000 an appearance and scrutinizing Bill’s $10 million book contract for any troublesome pitfalls.  There were also those tedious documents to sign for Bill’s $200,000 presidential pension and her own $20,000 annual pension for her term as First Lady.

There was also that rather irksome request from the Banker’s Trust that Hillary authorize them to accept for deposit $1.35 million from a certain Terry McAuliffe to secure the Clinton’s loan for the purchase a five-bedroom house in Chappaqua, New York. She was also tasked with itemizing the $190,000 worth of gifts for the family’s new home that flooded into the White House during the last cruel weeks of the Clinton presidency and arranging moving vans for the $28,000 of White House furnishings the family took with them to their humble new digs in New York.

But Hillary put her nose to the grindstone. She didn’t complain. She didn’t apply for unemployment compensation or food stamps. She simply devoted herself feverishly to the tasks at hand and over the course the next few months the Clinton’s fraught condition began to improve rather dramatically.

By the end of 2001, the Clintons owned two homes: the $5.95 million Dutch Colonial in Chappaqua and the $2.85 Georgian mansion in DC’s bucolic Observatory Circle neighborhood.  Her deft management of the family finances, a feat worthy of Cardinal Mazarin himself, allowed the displaced couple’s bank accounts to swell to more than $20 million. A carefully nourished blind trust also fattened to more than $5 million. In twelve short months, their net worth rose from “dead broke” to a fortune of more than $35 million.  Thus was the Clinton family was saved from a life of poverty.

The Clintons’ rapid reversal of fortune was almost as stunning as Hillary’s miraculous adventures in the commodity market in the 1980s, when with a little guidance from broker (and professional poker player) R.L. “Red” Bone, she shrewdly turned a $1000 investment in cattle futures into a $100,000 payday.

One might call the Clintons’ economic odyssey an American morality tale. It is the story of how a besieged family, staggered by the loss of a home, suddenly without an income and pursued by creditors, can pull themselves up from the gutter through persistence, hard work and a goal-oriented plan for success.

This exemplary narrative of self-salvation must have confirmed in HRC’s mind the righteousness of her decision in 1996 to run interference for Bill’s drive to demolish the federal welfare system. In that fateful season, Hillary assiduously lobbied liberal groups, including her old outfit the Children’s Defense Fund, to embrace the transformative power of austerity for poor women and children.

Over the next four years, more than six million poor families were pitched off the welfare rolls, left with only their own ingenuity to keep them from being chewed apart by the merciless riptides of the neoliberal economy. Politicians cheered the shrinking of the welfare state. Hillary boasted of moving millions from a life of dependency toward an enchanting new era of personal responsibility and economic opportunity.

But what really happened to those marginalized families, did the village rush in to help rear those millions of destitute kids, suddenly deprived of even a few meager dollars a month for food and shelter? Hardly. In 1995, more than 70 percent of poor families with children received some kind of cash assistance. By 2010, less than 30 percent got any kind of cash aid and the amount of the benefit had declined by more than 50 percent from pre-reform levels. During the depths of the current recession, when the poverty level nearly doubled, the welfare rolls scarcely budged at all and even dropped in some states.

More savagely, most of those “liberated” from the welfare system didn’t ascend into the middle class, but fell sharply into the chasm of extreme poverty, trying desperately to live on an income of less than $2 a day.

Still $2 a day is better off than being “dead broke.” Indeed, those forlorn mothers can always put down their last few bucks on the futures market. After all, as HRC reminds us, children are the future.

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