The Scramble for Cuba: Here comes Miami!

February 4, 2014

(Counterpunch) Consider it done: in the United States, the figurative hurricane barriers against access to Cuba are opening. Given they have been clamped shut for half a century, there is a lag time between turning the screws and actuating the gates. Put it this way: the lubrication is done.

On Monday, the conservative Capitol Hill Cubans blog hoisted a warning as the Washington Post published, “Sugar Tycoon Eyes Sweet-Deal With Castro”. Pay attention wherever Big Sugar surfaces. Cafecito is not the currency of the realm in Florida: sugar is. And not just Florida. Half of American health care costs are tied to the ill effects of sucrose in its various forms.

In June 2012 the blog, Eye On Miami, noted the first visit of Alfie Fanjul in Havana. Alfie is one half of the Florida Crystals family, the billion dollar brand that dominates anything related to land use, water management, agricultural subsidies and pollution control in the Florida legislature, Congress, and the White House.

It was more than a curiosity to learn that by 2012 wealthy Cuban Americans had publicly crossed the Florida Straits, risking the antagonism of the right wing message machine in Miami.

That message machine — embodied by vitriolic anti-Castro, Spanish language AM radio – routinely enforced political orthodoxy in Florida’s most politically influential county, Miami-Dade. Instructions came from the top down, and at the top: money from Big Sugar. The booming shrink wrapped luggage and long lines of passengers en route from Miami to Havana defied the stigma of the embargo. In other words, a brisk business between Miami Cubans and families on the island had already started beneath the AM language rants. Notwithstanding old hard liners banging war drums, by 2012 the gold rush was gearing up and by the presence of at least one Fanjul brother — Alfie — in Havana, political cards were being played.

Political observers who dismiss the importance of recent Fanjul statements to the Washington Post are missing the point. The Post offers Alfie Fanjul’s version of himself: teary-eyed, standing before the family mansion in Havana. Maybe there was a tear or two.

Capitol Hill Cubans allude to the fact that the Fanjuls’ wealth grew from the largesse of American taxpayers and through the sheer political skill involved in maintaining the subsidies that have earned hundreds of millions of dollars. Moreover, I would add, a billionaire fortune built on immigrant farm labor, pollution, and turning the Everglades, the Florida legislature, and Congress into their own VIP rooms. That’s not, however, the direction Capitol Hill Cubans want to explore.

“Monopolists understand each other”, they write. More to the point, conservative Cuban leaders tolerated the Fanjul monopolists extraordinarily well so long as the action was shared. One of the first business lines of Jorge Mas Canosa, founder of the right wing Cuban American National Foundation, was to broker farm equipment to the sugar barons.

The current leader of the foundation, Pepe Hernandez, told the Washington Post, “Having known Alfie for 40 years, I think we can trust him to do the right thing.”

Now, the Capitol Hill Cubans spy the fault line breaking at the possible campaign of Hillary Clinton, where the Democrat side of the Fanjul clan, Alfie’s, resides. But that’s not it at all.

The issue prying the remaining hard liners in Miami from the Fanjuls is that the Fanjuls will not wait while billions in business opportunities are being hammered out between the Cuban government and wealthy South Americans and European competitors. It’s not ideology that kept the Fanjuls from Cuba, it’s the fear of losing money now that there is money to be made.

Leaving the issue of the Castro regime to the side, the question is not when will the regime come to a close, but …when will the money spigot open?

It is open, now. The sign is not yet above the model unit, beckoning buyers, but insiders have already done their walk-thrus before the public is admitted.

For an aging and dying generation of Cuban Americans, the enduring hope was for retribution and a swift execution of justice in Havana. Miami Cuban Americans would lead the charge. Instead of forcing change in Havana, anti-Castro hatreds primarily succeeded in mobilizing voting blocks in South Florida, ensuring a conservative GOP majority in the state legislature and a Congress that marched to the same syncopated downbeat as the upbeat in Havana. Meanwhile, a lot of money was made by Miami Cuban Americans controlling the levers of politics, of growth and development of suburbs and condo canyons, of privatization of government services and charter schools, while the Castros held on in Havana.

Today, the Castro brothers are fading faster than the conservative Cuban American lock on Miami politics. The Fanjuls, on the other hand, with their “30,000 foot view” do understand that history is moving.

So what the Fanjuls do, matters. The Washington Post story is like the wisp of smoke emerging from the Vatican chimney when the cardinals have made their decision on the next Pope.

Put another way: there is money and then there is real money. The very rich, like the sugar barons, are — as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in another context — “not like you and me.” The Fanjuls have excelled at manipulating governments in service of sugar profits in the United States. In the Everglades, they deploy the best black hats that money to delay Everglades restoration while tens of billions of taxpayer dollars are spent in work-arounds of lands in sugar production that need to be returned to fix the Everglades. There are always ways to make money from economic barriers. But when those hurdles are defeating profits — the way opposition to Castro in Miami is, today — the hurdles have to fall. It’s just business.

Here is what Capitol Hill Cubans will not write. For so many of the Miami Cuban American elite, the signal of the Fanjuls turning to Cuba is a shift as great as the state department declaring the cessation of hostilities and the return of the embassy to Havana.

What the Capitol Hill Cubans can’t ask and can’t answer, how big is the piece of the pie going to be for Miami Cuban American businessmen? That’s always been the question they wanted to know. (I learned this in the 1990s, leading the battle against the conversion of a military base in South Florida bordering two national parks into a privatized commercial airport for the benefit of powerful Cuban American businessmen. They said it was for a “reliever airport” to Miami International. No, it was for a private and exclusive cargo airport to control the resupply of Cuba once the regime changed.)

For decades, Miami Cubans claimed to want the whole of Cuba, for “freedom and democracy”, knowing that they probably have to settle for less. But how much less? As the years ground on, with Mas Canosa gone and Fidel enfeebled, business interests from other parts of the world have gained traction. The port work, the infrastructure, the city center: the shovels are turning in Havana.

The Miami vise-grip of Cuban Americans on the “embargo” against Cuba is the theoretical analog of the decrepit, old fleet of 1955 Chevy sedans, held together with the same tenacity in Cuba. That fleet is being replaced on the streets of Havana with Toyotas, KIA, and Fiat, the same way as they have in Rangoon. Or Yangon. Whatever.

The Washington Post story and the instant reaction from the Capitol Hill Cubans couldn’t be more clear. The Fanjuls want their piece of the action. The game in Havana is, on. Let the scrambling of lesser mortals, begin.


Environmental Regulation is the Enemy and Time is Our Friend — Just Drink Water From Our Plastic Bottles and You Will be Safe Until This Crisis Blows Over West Virginia’s Message to the Nation

January 13, 2014

(COUNTERPUNCH) The vaunted capacity of enlightened corporations to do better than government to protect the public interest in clean, safe water just cracked a big leak in West Virginia.

Here is the most curious omission in media coverage of the West Virginia pollution disaster: how politics in West Virginia harbors antipathy to the very environmental regulations that ought to protect the state’s drinking water.

It is also an outstanding example how politics have consequences like those depriving 300,000 people in Charleston of safe drinking water. It is almost as though the media — that knows no boundaries when it comes to matching mayhem to eyeballs — has discovered in the underbrush of West Virginia politics a tragedy that is too horrible: the indelicate matter of voters supporting choices that undermine their own existence.

Curious, too, the media has no difficulty macerating an event in New Jersey that is similarly totemic: traffic flow on the George Washington Bridge traffic constipated by political ambition. Arguably the Elk River in West Virginia represents the same theme of politics making mince-meat of citizen safety with a significantly more dire outcome. Yet the media holds its nose.

Although both US Senators from West Virginia are Democrats, they are a leaden part of the Democratic majority in the Senate that exposes the American public to the worst of right-wing extremism against environmental regulation.

West Virginia is a poor state. Poverty indexes put the state near the very bottom. So when a story like the Elk River, that bears an eery familiarity to the burning rivers of the industrial midwest that spurred in the 1970′s the first federal environmental laws, emerges: one struggles for interpretation more clear than a poor state subject to most unfortunate, unavoidable calamity. That is exactly what is playing out on nightly network news.

Not a word either from Fox News how environmental rules might have reached to protect Charleston’s drinking water from the owners of the coal-industry company. The Politburo in the Soviet Union had the Soviet era organ called Pravda to selectively inform Russians. That pretty much defines Fox News, when it comes to the environment and the importance of regulations. Where is the indignation? Where is the outcry? Where is the investigation of the evisceration of the EPA’s enforcement authority?

Although the federal EPA — the bogeyman of the right-wing — is not implicated in the Elk River disaster, the shadow cast over a city incapable of delivering clean water to citizens invites full disclosure.

According to news reports, even though the tanks were decades beyond their useful life, the catastrophic pollution event awaits dilution and time. Thus it is with pollution in the United States.

The name of the company responsible for the catastrophe in West Virginia: Freedom Industries.


The Killer Politics of Big Sugar: It Is What It Is

January 10, 2014

COUNTERPUNCH WEEKEND EDITION JANUARY 10-12, 2014

A recent report by the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) underscores the health care crisis in the world’s most exceptional democracy. The U.S. spends two and a half times per capita more on health care than any other developed country. How does this happen? Take a look at a key player in the paradox: sugar growers. In Florida it is called, Big Sugar. In other states it is beets, maple syrup and most ubiquitous of all: high-fructose corn syrup extracted from an unlimited corn crop heavily subsidized by taxpayers.

“30%-40% of healthcare expenditures in the USA go to help address issues that are closely tied to the excess consumption of sugar.” (Credit Suisse Report: “Sugar: Consumption At A Crossroads”, Sept. 2013) In Forbes Magazine, contributor Dan Monroe summarized, “Basically, the U.S. healthcare system spends about $1 trillion per year (and possibly more) fighting the effects of excess sugar consumption.”

“Higher health spending per capita tends to be associated with lower mortality rates and higher life expectancy, but this is not the case for the United States.” (“OECD: Switzerland tops 34 nations for life expectancy at 82.8″, UPI, Jan. 7, 2014) American politics are organized to protect corporate interests that make voters and taxpayers sick, and there is no better example: in a candy bar or a bowl of healthy granola, sugar is the big stake in the heart of American health.

According to a recent United Health Foundation study, “Nine of the 10 least healthy states in the nation had among the 10 worst obesity rates in the country.” The United Health Foundation was established by UnitedHealth Group in 1999 as a not-for-profit, private foundation dedicated to improving health and health care. Its ”America’s Health Rankings” rates the most healthy and least health states by evaluating factors such as healthy behaviors, quality of health care, health policy, the presence of diseases and deaths from illnesses.

The study is a good gateway to explore the politics of sugar. Nutrition advocates and environmentalists who have every reason to despair at the corrupting political influence of sugar have never connected the dots for the American public: sugar is not just another crop that receives federal benefits. It is a crop whose profits deform democracy and public health, no matter whose political party is in charge or at what level of government. Read the rest of this entry »


In the Climate Change Coal Mine: The Year the Canaries Came Home to Roost

January 1, 2014

In the Climate Change Coal Mine
The Year the Canaries Came Home to Roost

(Counterpunch) For my final essay of 2013 I am going to (again) write about climate change. This seems to be the year of the canaries in the climate-change coal mine. “Seems”, because at the risk of repetition I have been on that metaphor from the moment I started on the environment.

Back in the late 1980′s I wrote about serial algae blooms in northern Florida Bay. Although the scientists were scratching each other’s eyes out at the time — on the facts and cause –, it was clear that nothing could stop amorphous, amoeba-like blobs from destroying a vast, extraordinary piece of the Everglades ecosystem.

Nothing but government action to reverse decades of water mis-management that accrued to the benefit and upstream profits of Big Sugar. But the deniers controlled the levers of government: it was the time of Ronald Reagan, James Watts and the Wise Use Movement mobilized through the precursor to the Tea Party, called then the Sagebrush Rebellion — against government and especially against environmental regulation — and its Florida Keys branch, the Conch Coalition. Read the rest of this entry »


The Return of Podesta: Can He Really Salvage a Distracted White House?

December 13, 2013

Can He Really Salvage a Distracted White House?
The Return of Podesta

(Counterpunch) The Washington Post opines that the return to the White House of John Podesta, former chief of staff in the Clinton administration, who have been disappointed by the absence of focus in the Obama White House. Maybe. Read the rest of this entry »


Invasion of the Cruise Ships

October 11, 2013

Resisting the Commodification of Culture
Invasion of the Cruise Ships

(Counterpunch) A week ago, a referendum by voters in the city of Key West, Florida, resoundingly defeated a plan that would have lead to vastly more cruise ship passengers. Voters came from different points of view; some environmental, some fed up with the ceaseless river of low-brow tourism, but a strong majority agreed the cruise ship industry has harmed the fabled island’s quality of life. What is interesting is that voters were given a chance, at all.

The cruise ship industry is a major component of global tourism and one of its fastest growing segments. In the 1960′s my parents took an expensive Lindblad cruise ship expedition to the fragile Galapagos. While cruise liners had a storied history shuttling passengers across oceans, it was early for adventure travel to a destination made attractive by difficult transit to a unique place.

What would keep millions of travelers from visiting the Galapagos, I wondered. Nothing, it turns out, but supply and demand.

In the past half century, the cruise ship industry has matured into a global leviathan, politically powerful and insulated by international law, serving all classes of passengers to every exotic local on the planet with a port to handle the transfer of passengers. Read the rest of this entry »


The Reluctant Heretic: Clay Shaw, Big Sugar, and the Everglades

September 18, 2013

The Reluctant Heretic
Clay Shaw, Big Sugar and the Everglades

In obituaries, Florida Congressman Clay Shaw has been roundly praised as a moderate Republican and champion of the Everglades. A little too roundly. Shaw served 26 years in Congress, at a time when the GOP perfected polarization tactics as well as any southern Democrat. It is not enough to note, in passing, a Republican leader who stood up for protecting one of the most threatened ecosystems in the United States. How Clay Shaw was a friend of the Everglades deserves a closer reading and involves the story of a Republican who braved dissent of the Jeb Bush orthodoxy at the time and in a state that determined the outcome of the most contested presidential election in US history.

In June 2001, Shaw was in the entourage when President George W. Bush visited the Everglades. According to a New York Times report at the time, “Mindful, perhaps, that the president was not seen as having lavished sufficient praise on Representative Shaw at the Everglades event, speakers went out of their way to pay homage to him here. Al Cardenas, the state Republican chairman, singled out Mr. Shaw for “special recognition” as “someone who fights so hard for Florida every day in Congress.” (“Florida GOP sees Bush visit as latest slight”, NYT, 6/14/2001)

The fact of the Everglades as a political swamp could not have been lost on any of the participants. In a region where every developed acre of wetland involved the vigorous application of persuasion skills — from zoning applications, to sales, to mortgages and political contributions — , the sixty mile wide watershed of the River of Grass — stretching more than a hundred miles from the boundaries of Orlando and Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Keys — represented more a totem for platted subdivisions, strip malls culture, sugar cane and rock mining (for cement) than a herald for ecological harmony.

The vaunted balance between man and nature in the Everglades is often preached and more often breached. By that summer 2001, political leaders at the speaker’s podium were doing what they had been doing for decades before and since: promising to re-arrange the multi-billion dollar water infrastructure in one of the nation’s fastest growing states to give some chance of survival to the once-magnificent biodiversity of America’s only tropical wilderness, including iconic predators like the Florida panther roaming a shrunken, degraded habitat. Protect the environment and the economy. Read the rest of this entry »


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 273 other followers