Jeff Flake threatens to block Trump's appellate court nominees over Cuba travel, tariffs

Sen. Jeff Flake is warning that he may block votes on the nominations of all of President Donald Trump's pending appellate court nominees unless he gets favorable action on two issues unrelated to the judiciary.

According to one source, Flake wants to spur discussions on travel restrictions to Cuba as well as issues related to tariffs.

"We're discussing it," the Arizona Republican said in a brief interview with CNN as he came out of an immigration negotiation.

Flake sits on the Judiciary Committee, where Republicans have a slim 11-10 advantage over Democrats. If he does not relent, he could bring the work of the powerful committee to a halt as it applies to appellate court nominees, who are often voted out on party lines.

Confirming these influential circuit court nominees has been a top priority and bragging point for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Trump.

So far, the Senate has pushed through an unprecedented number of appeals court nominees. Indeed, McConnell tweeted publicly in January: "@potus was able to seat more Circuit Court judges in the 1st year of his presidency than anyone in history."

On Wednesday night, Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, acknowledged that if Flake moved to block the nominees, his hands could be tied.

Grassley told CNN he will not schedule votes on these nominees until Flake's issues are resolved and he is on board.

"If it is a controversial one, we probably would have to have all 11 Republicans. So if one Republican wouldn't vote, and it's 10 to 10, then we're not going to take it up," he said.
But Grassley added that the Senate nominations calendar is so full right now he doesn't feel any pressure for the Judiciary Committee to move anyone out until September.

"I could probably wait for a month to vote any more judges out, so there is nothing immediately of concern to me as far as the work of the committee is concerned," he said.

Grassley noted he hadn't spoken directly with Flake on the matter.
"So we can just delay and delay and delay," Grassley said. "If we don't vote for any more judges that Flake doesn't want to vote for until September, we still probably got plenty to do."

Flake, who has announced he will not be seeking re-election, has been an outspoken critic of Trump. He could exercise rare leverage over the President by holding up these nominees.

In addition, GOP leaders recognize that at this point, because of the absence of Sen. John McCain, his fellow Arizona Republican, Flake has extraordinary power to affect the confirmation of nominees not just in committee but on the floor too.

Even if these nominees were voted out of committee -- or if leaders used procedural tools to move them to the floor without a vote of approval from the Judiciary Committee -- Flake could help block them on cloture, the procedural motion to end debate that needs a majority of senators.

If Flake voted with Democrats on cloture, he could defeat the motion to advance the nominee 49-50.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who is the second-ranking Republican in the Senate and a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he was not aware of Flake's specific concerns but wanted to talk to him to see if they could be resolved.

A source familiar with Flake's issues complained that it is a "bizarre situation where a senator is holding nominations hostage for his pet projects."

Kristine Lucius, a longtime Democratic staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee who is now the executive vice president for policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, welcomed the news of Flake's hesitation.

"Senators are supposed to be making independent decisions about the suitability of any nominee for a lifetime appointment, " she said and criticized Republicans for voting in "lockstep" for every one of the President's nominees.

"There would be nothing inappropriate for a senator to start weighing those decisions more carefully," she said.

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Senate Farm Bill Contains Amendment to Enhance Trade With Cuba

The farm bill passed by the Senate Ag Committee includes an amendment that would enhance agricultural trade between the United States and Cuba. It authorizes the USDA Market Access and Foreign Market Development Program funding to go toward trade servicing in Cuba, as well as technical assistance and trade promotion activities. North Dakota Farmers Union President Mark Watne says that will help his state’s farmers.

The biggest problem trading with Cuba has been financial barriers and Watne says this amendment helps clear that up.

He’s hoping the Senate farm bill gets full approval soon and pushes the House to pass their measure.

Senators Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and John Boozman of Arkansas sponsored the Cuban amendment.

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Local youths to go on a baseball mission to Cuba this summer

Youth Futures International will partner with Boston nonprofit The Base to create “Building Bridges through Baseball,” an international program that will send a baseball team to Cuba this summer with the hope of fostering leadership and diplomacy.

Youth Futures International announced the joint partnership Tuesday, and the inaugural Building Bridges through Baseball will begin Aug. 20, when youngsters will spend 10 days in Cuba completing a variety of leadership and baseball activities. YFI founder and executive director David Butler hopes to create a lasting partnership between the two nonprofits.

“The future is about having long-term relationships,” said Butler. “Long-term is always the goal because of the impact we know can make [rather] than just doing a one-time program.

“I feel real synergy with Robert Lewis Jr. [president of The Base] as we hope we can partner more throughout the year in volunteering in different levels.”

The joint partnership was spearheaded by former Red Sox and Phillies relief pitcher Wayne Gomes, who was coached by Butler in 1982 when he was a military dependent on an Air Force base in Germany. Gomes and Butler reunited last summer with the goal of creating an international baseball program.

“Putting two organizations that are so like-minded can only benefit the kids in masses,’’ said Gomes. “Both programs have grown and I have no doubt they will continue to grow together and the effect will be changing lives in the community.”

Gomes is one of seven former major leaguers who will be coaching with the organizations this summer.

“The major league baseball players provide not only experience from [a] baseball standpoint and instruction they can’t get anywhere else, but they also provide the opportunity to share life lessons,” said Gomes. I [wanted] our coaching staff to be diverse, familiar with working with kids, and having the ability to teach the game like I know it can be taught.”

YFI has created partnerships with England and Ghana, but the partnership with Cuba poses some difficulty because of the United States’ less-than-cordial relationship with the island nation over the years.

“Through sports, our program hopes to generate a positive response with our youth coming together with youth from other nations, whether we’ve had great relations with other countries or not,” said Butler. “Students want to be a part of making a difference positively, and we have safe conduits like baseball and soccer that help create a ripple effect.

“We want them to know they can make a difference now versus just waiting for the problem to be solved.

“Each and every youth, no matter where they come from, can bring relevance, credibility, and value to our global story.”

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US immigrant kids: Held in Tents Cities

Around 10,000 immigrant kids arrived alone in the U.S. and were held in tents. According to some media based in Washington, the Trump administration projects to build tents in different military posts with the purpose of locking them up in Texas.

Officers from the Department of Health and Human Service will visit soon the US army bases in Fort Bliss aiming for getting 5,000 of these kids there while the rest are supposed to be left in the other two military bases of the state.

According to journalist Franco Ordonez —El Nuevo Herald—, it occurs at the same time that shelters for children separated from their parents on the border with Mexico are 95% full.

The number of children in this situation increased in 20%. The US secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and the Attorney General Jeff Sessions placed a zero tolerance policy that separates children from their parents.

Trump’s government justifies itself by claiming that the Congress allows federal authorities to free illegal immigrants who wait for their hearings.

The Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in a round table with the Head of State rallied against those measures that hinder the immediate deportation of those children.

He noted that “it can take months or even yearsonce they get into the federal immigration court system.

Rosenstein added “In fact, approximately 6,000 unaccompanied children each year fail to appear when they’ve been summoned.”

As we know, tens of thousands of families and children that came alone were arrested since 2014, when Central American mothers arrived in Valle del Rio Grande in Texas, fleeing from violence and extreme poverty.

Leon Fresco, Deputy Attorney General under Barack Obama, said “dividing families is not only controversial, but excessively expensive.”

There were people who accused the government of Donald Trump of using children as pawns to score some political points.

Clara Long, American researcher of the Human Rights Watch, highlighted that “arresting children by immigration purposes is never positive for them and the possibility of having those children living on tent cities is horrible.”

When Washington criticizes the human right subject in the world, they do not mention issues like this one.

Translated by Sergio A. Paneque Diaz/CubaSi Translation Staff

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Seventh Meeting of the Cuba-United States Bilateral Commission held in Washington D.C.

On June 14, 2018, the Seventh Bilateral Commission Meeting between Cuba and the United States was held in Washington, D.C. 

Even in the present circumstances, the Commission remains as an official dialogue forum for the direct discussion of differences and the follow-up on issues in which there is cooperation and mutual interest.

The meeting provided an opportunity to review the areas of exchange and cooperation where activities were carried out in the most recent months and to confirm potentials to move forward in other sectors. 

The Cuban delegation rebuffed the regress in the bilateral relationship imposed by the government of the United States and called attention on the negative consequences thereof for both peoples, the Cuban emigration and the international and regional environment. The Cuban delegation reiterated that the economic, commercial and financial blockade continues to be the main obstacle to any perspective of improvement in the bilateral relationship and denounced its intensification with the adoption, in particular, of additional financial measures of aggressive extraterritorial nature.

It referred to the negative impact of the political and diplomatic actions promoted by the United States since the previous bilateral commission meeting held in September 2017, including the intended interference in the internal affairs of Cuba, with the open manipulation of the human rights issue, which is flagrantly, massively and systematically violated with the implementation of the blockade. 

The Cuban delegation urged the government of the United States to desist from the continued political manipulation of the alleged health cases, which became the pretext to adopt new unilateral measures that affect the performance of the respective embassies, in particular, the rendering of consular services depended upon by hundreds of thousands of persons.

The delegation also demanded the lifting of the arbitrary “travel warning” which hinders the scientific, academic, cultural, religious and entrepreneurial exchanges, as well as the visits by Americans to a country that is internationally recognized as safe and healthy. 

The Cuban delegation acknowledged the advances achieved in the bilateral migratory commitments and alerted to the risk of non-compliance by the United States with the existing obligations pursuant to the agreements signed.

Likewise, the delegation reaffirmed that it has been demonstrated that it is possible to cooperate and live in a civilized manner, by respecting differences and promoting that which benefits both countries and peoples. It expressed Cuba’s willingness to continue the bilateral dialogue and to work on issues of common interest through the active implementation, based on concrete proposals, of the bilateral agreements subscribed as those on environmental protection, law enforcement, health, agriculture, hydrography and geodesy, among others.

The Cuban delegation was led by Carlos Fernández de Cossío Domínguez, Director General for U.S. Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while the U.S. delegation was led by John Creamer, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

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U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Commission to meet for first time since U.S. withdrew embassy personnel

The first round of bilateral meetings between the U.S. and Cuba since Washington permanently withdrew personnel from the embassy in Havana will take place on Thursday in Washington, DC.

For some, it will take heightened significance with the backdrop of the recent historic meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un of North Korea, where Kim agreed to denuclearize in exchange for better relations with the U.S. In the case of Cuba, tensions between the two countries intensified after Trump rolled back on some of former President Barack Obama’s historic détente with the island. A draw down in U.S. embassy personnel following mysterious incidents that have affected the health of U.S. diplomats and their families has further strained relations.

The Bilateral Commission will be the seventh meeting the two countries have held since restoring relations in 2015. The last meeting was in September 2017 and it was the first time they met under the Trump administration. It took place under different circumstances than the previous meetings. The health incidents had been reported a few weeks prior and Trump had announced a rollback in Obama’s policy a few months before.

After the meeting, the Cuban Foreign Ministry released a sharply worded statement protesting critical comments made by Trump to the U.N. General Assembly while the Bilateral Commission was in session. Trump had called Cuba “corrupt and destabilizing” and said he would not lift the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba until it made “fundamental reforms.”

The Bilateral Commission is the platform through which the U.S. and Cuba identify, prioritize, and schedule initiatives, including specific dialogues and working group meetings. Some of the topics covered are dialogues on human rights, law enforcement, claims, and migration, according to a State Department spokesperson for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

John Creamer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs will lead the U.S. side. The State Department did not confirm who would be leading the Cuban delegation, but sources familiar with the meeting said it is Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, who has replaced Josefina Vidal as director of U.S. affairs at the Cuban Foreign Ministry. She was Cuba’s chief negotiator during the opening toward Cuba and is now the Cuban ambassador to Canada.

The State Department did not respond to requests for comment about whether the U.S. would press Cuba about the unexplained health incidents during the meeting.

Last week, the U.S. withdrew two more people from the embassy due to health concerns. They are considered potential new cases but have not yet been medically confirmed. If confirmed by doctors at the University of Pennsylvania, where others affected have been treated, they will mark the 25th and 26th confirmed cases in Cuba.

The incidents were first disclosed last year. The confirmed patients have a range of symptoms and diagnoses including mild traumatic brain injury and permanent hearing loss.

In February, the U.S. made permanent its decision to withdraw 60 percent of its diplomats from Cuba, citing its need to protect American personnel.

The U.S. has said it does not know who is behind it, but has argued Cuba is responsible for protecting diplomats on its soil. Cuba has denied any involvement or knowledge of the events.

The U.S. and Cuba continue making strides in some areas. Direct mail service was recently reestablished after a trial run. The two countries held three meetings in Washington during February focused on law enforcement issues, according to a State Department spokesperson. One was on money laundering and denying criminals financial safe havens abroad and two were on trafficking persons

But Cuba still views the trade embargo on the island as the major obstacle in advancing relations between the two countries and in the development of their stagnant economy. Lifting the embargo still faces domestic opposition in the U.S.

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Cuban National Hero inducted to New York Writers Hall of Fame

Jose Marti, Cuba´s National Hero, was included as new member of the New York Writers Hall of Fame in recognition to his work as poet, essayist, journalist and politician.

Thus, the Cuban creator became the second Hispanic writer to enter the exclusive room, after the Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos did it in 2011, according to Cubadebate website.

The proposal was promoted in recent times by Esther Allen, a Marti scholar and translator, and the Cuban-American historian Ada Ferrer, of New York University, both scholars and promoters of his work.

The induction to the select group took place during a ceremony, in which Ferrer and Lisandro Perez, a Cuban American sociologist and professor at John Jay College, were in charge of the opening speeches.

The New York Writers Hall of Fame is a project of the Empire State Center for the Book that annually grants membership to several writers, living or dead, who have marked the cultural history of that great city.

Some of the most famous members are Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Washington Irving, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Mary McCarthy, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, among others.

This year, along with Marti, five other writers were inducted, two of them also deceased: Ira Gershwin (1896-1983) who wrote many well-known songs with her brother George Gershwin; and E.L. Konigsburg (1930-2013), author of books for children.

The other three authors are the historian and journalist Russell Shorto (1959), Pulitzer Prize-winner novelist Colson Whitehead (1969) and Jacqueline Woodson (1963), current United States Ambassador for Young People´s Literature.

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Badass racoon scales 23 storey building, becomes internet superstar

We have a new hero...

Remember the Parisian Spider-Man that scaled an apartment building a few weeks back, in order to save a stranded four year old?

Well, if he ever needs a cute animal sidekick, we’ve got him covered.

On Tuesday, a daredevil racoon found itself stuck on a ledge beneath the UBS building in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The animal had been stuck there for two days, without any food or water. It had reportedly been on a different, smaller building and had been removed by pest control officers - but then fled to the much, much taller UBS Building.

And because it’s just a dumb – if incredibly cute – animal, it eventually thought the best thing to do was just climb up.

Wild life experts advised authorities not to get to close to the racoon, as their presence could startle it and cause it to leap from the building. The fire department also stated that they couldn't risk the life of a fire fighter to rescue a racoon, no matter how much Twitter cared about it.

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