Marco Rubio – Page 2 – Florida Politics

Marco Rubio says Parkland murders result of ‘multi-systemic failure’

At a Congressional roundtable Wednesday at the White House, Sen. Marco Rubio described the Parkland murders not as a failure of gun control, but as a “multi-systemic failure.”

“This was a multi-systemic failure,” Rubio said. “The Sheriff’s Office knew this was a problem. The FBI knew this was a problem. The Department of Children and Families knew this was a problem.”

“The big problem is they don’t talk to each other. Nobody told the others what they knew,” Rubio said, before outlining legislative remedies.

One remedy, Rubio said, is live in the House and soon to be live in the Senate: the Stop School Violence Act, sponsored by Rep. John Rutherford in the House.

“The best way to prevent these is to stop it before it starts. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t harden schools. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have debate in other areas … get on them, get them the services they need, and deny them the right to buy any gun,” Rubio said.

“I think that’s something that holds tremendous bipartisan promise,” Rubio said.

The Senator also held up Florida’s proposed reforms in the wake of Parkland as a possible example for the rest of the country.

The plan offers some moves toward gun control: restrictions of purchases by those who have been Baker Acted, as well as a ban on commercial sales to those under 21, and a “bump stock” ban. As well, $450 million for school hardening, and another $50 million for mental health, including overt cooperation between local law enforcement and the DCF.

“We can still debate some of the other things,” Rubio said, “but we owe it to the families.”

The President agreed with the Senator.

Marco Rubio upside down in new Q poll, especially with Hispanics

Marco Rubio had a rough night last week in Sunrise, where he faced a lion’s den of hostile voters during a CNN live town-hall meeting featuring family members and friends of the victims of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland the week before.

Rubio apparently isn’t too popular with the rest of the state either, as a new Quinnipiac Poll released Tuesday shows that only 38 percent of Floridians surveyed currently support the Republican lawmaker, with 55 percent opposing him. Nine percent did not have an opinion.

The survey of 1,156 Florida voters was conducted Friday, Feb. 23-Monday, Feb. 26, days after Rubio took a verbal beating from angry Broward County residents, some of whom accused him of being a sell-out to the National Rifle Association.

When pressed by Cameron Kasky, a student who survived the shooting at Douglas High, Rubio declined on multiple occasions to say whether he would accept future contributions.

Instead, he insisted over the booing and groaning in the crowd that he does not buy into the agendas of outside organizations and that they instead have to support his.

Rubio notably did say that he was open to reconsidering his position on the size of magazine clips, a chief policy prescription that gun control advocates favor.

He also said that he believes that nobody under the age of 21 should be able to buy a gun, and broke with other Republicans in saying that he did not believe that teachers should be armed.

Rubio, a Cuban-American, is not faring well with Hispanic voters either in the new survey. Only 27 percent of those polled support him, while 66 percent say they disapprove of his performance.

Rubio was re-elected to the Senate in November 2016, defeating Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy, 52 percent-44 percent.

Marco Rubio, Bill Nelson back FDLE request for $1 million for Parkland reimbursement

Days after the Florida Department of Law Enforcement requested $1 million in emergency funding from the U.S. Justice Department to reimburse law enforcement agencies that responded to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting, Florida’s U.S. Senators, Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, wrote in support of the request, urging quick reimbursement, along with U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch.

The money, via Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Precipitous Increase in Crime emergency funds, would mitigate a “strain on state and local law enforcement resources” created by “the additional costs resulting from this traumatic event.”

If more than $1 million is requested, the letter asks for quick approval.

And it is entirely possible that more is needed in the end.

The exact amount that is needed could change in the future, Petrina Tuttle Herring, the bureau chief of FDLE’s Office of Criminal Justice Grants, said last week in a letter.

Material from Ana Ceballos was used in this post.

Hundreds of high-school students protest gun violence in Tampa rally

Chanting “we want change now,” hundreds of Blake High School students marched to Curtis Hixon Park Friday afternoon, calling for gun-control measures in the wake of the massacre in Parkland last week.

The crowd was stacked with mostly students, joined by other Tampa Bay area activists determined to perhaps finally see gun regulations enacted following the most recent shooting attack on primarily teenagers which stunned the nation.

“We don’t want your prayers, we want legislation,” read a sign held by Elizabeth Smith, who said that she’s never been much of a fan of the National Rifle Association, the all-powerful gun-rights organization that for nearly two decades has been described as the single most significant force for Congress and state legislatures failing to enact gun regulations.

“I feel like once we get rid of the NRA, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) can step in and figure out why these things are happening,” Smith said. “They say ‘they’re just high school students, they’re too young to know anything, but here we are. We know why we’re here, and we know what we’re talking about, and we know that if we do this, and we’re collective about compromise and change that we can get something done.”

Antonio Walker held a sign reading: “How many lives is your gun worth?”

Walker hopes that the anger in the country about Parkland can result in a diminution of the NRA’s power.

“I hope that they hate what we’re saying and they understand that it’s an issue for everybody,” he said of school gun violence. “It can happen to their kids. It can happen to any of us.”

While he won’t turn 18 until after the election, Walker can’t wait to vote in 2020.

“We’re about to vote and make change ourselves in our own voices,” he said, “so it’s time that we actually do that.”

Zoe Gallagher is a 14-year-old sophomore at Blake who also dances at the Patel Conservatory. She attended the march with her mother and little brother.

When she learned of the killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last week, Gallagher was shocked and scared.

“I’m not really a big follower of politics, but things like that have made me think more about how I want to make sure to stay attuned about what’s going on, ” she said. “its made me more conscious.”

High-school students weren’t the only ones at the protest.

Sixty-eight-year-old Kent Fast says he vividly remembers the protests against the Vietnam War that was led by the younger generation half a century ago. He said the protests this week against gun violence “feel different,” a feeling he attributes directly to youth leading the activism, something not seen in America in a very long time.

A hunter and gun owner, Fast says he’s not “stupid” and sees no reason anybody needs an AK-47, AR-15 or any other type of assault weapon.

“I want some reasonable gun control and I think there’s some room for that,” he says, adding that “even Marco Rubio was moving off the square” regarding his announcement on live television on Wednesday night in the CNN town hall from Sunrise where he announced he now supported some gun regulations he had never previously believed in.

At 29, Hillsborough County Commission candidate Elvis Pigott is used to being one of the younger people at social protests. He calls it “very encouraging” to see so many people just half his (relatively young) age out in the streets calling for social change.

“Their eyes are open, and they’re determined to keep on knocking, until somebody answers,” says Pigott, a pastor from Riverview.

Rick Scott stays in sync with the NRA as he faces a reckoning on guns

The governor is planning to roll out his legislative proposal Friday that, according to a spokesman, will be “aimed at keeping Florida schools safe and keeping firearms out of the hands of mentally ill people.”

With Florida now at the epicenter of a fast-changing national gun debate, the state’s Republican governor is so far refusing to budge from his long-standing opposition to new limits on firearms.

The approach of Gov. Rick Scott, who holds an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association and is preparing to enter what would be a hotly-contested Senate race, stands in contrast to fellow Republicans such as Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and President Donald Trump who in recent days have expressed openness to some new gun limits.

In the days since last week’s mass shooting at a South Florida high school re-energized gun-control activists, Scott has so far responded to questions about the issue with answers that quickly turn to mental health and the need for enhancing safety protocols in schools.

Although he initially told CNN last week “everything’s on the table,” Scott declined an invitation from the network to appear at Wednesday night’s town hall with survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Rubio attended the event and said for the first time he was ready to consider some restrictions on assault weapons — while Scott’s potential opponent in the fall, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, hinted guns could be a focal point in the race by taking a swipe at the governor’s decision to skip.

″[Rubio] had guts, coming here,” Nelson said, prompting boos from the crowd of 7,000 moments later when he added: “Our governor did not come here.”

Scott could face a reckoning on the issue in the coming days, with GOP lawmakers engaged in talks with Democrats designed to produce a potentially modest gun restriction bill before the Legislature’s Session ends next week. The measure would go to Scott for his signature — or possible veto.

The governor is planning to roll out his own legislative proposal Friday that, according to a spokesman, will be “aimed at keeping Florida schools safe and keeping firearms out of the hands of mentally ill people.” The spokesman, John Tupps, said Scott would like to see “swift action,” but he did not specify what that could be.

Scott declined to be interviewed for this story, but several associates this week told The Washington Post he has no intention of softening his views on gun rights.

“He’s committed to Second Amendment rights, and that’s not going to change,” said Brian Ballard, a veteran Florida lobbyist and Scott supporter. “He’s a strong NRA supporter and knows that you have to be careful about tweaking anything that would affect someone’s right to bear arms.”

Keith Appell, a former Scott campaign adviser, said the governor is highly unlikely to embrace new gun regulations.

“He genuinely feels that you don’t solve a symptom of the problem, you solve the problem,” Appell said. “The problem is that schools aren’t safe and is eroding the Second Amendment going to make one kid safer?”

Appell added, “He’s going to be skeptical about the suggestion that banning guns will make school safer.”

Scott, 65, is a wiry and wealthy former health care executive whose anti-establishment entry into politics eight years ago foreshadowed the rise of his ally, Trump.

Known for an upbeat but scripted style, Scott has not shied away from political drama since last week’s tragedy.

He has placed blame on the FBI for failing to act on a call weeks before the shooting, calling for the resignation of the bureau’s director, Christopher Wray.

He has attended numerous funerals, and he has met with survivors of last week’s deadly rampage that killed 17 people and left scores injured. Even in private discussions, he has avoided talk of gun limits.

“He said there is no way that someone who is mentally deranged, such as [Douglas High School shooting suspect] Nikolas Cruz, should have access to a gun,” said Olivia Feller, 16, a junior at the high school who met with Scott on Wednesday along with other students.

One place for consensus could be a revision of Florida’s Baker Act, a law that determines how far law enforcement can go in restricting the activities or purchases of mentally ill people.

Sheriffs and other leaders were divided on whether a change to the scope of the law would infringe on gun rights. Some officials said it should be left alone and urged the state to concentrate on giving weapons to teachers.

Appearing Tuesday at a policy workshop, Scott steered clear of talk of gun rights and focused on “taking a hard look at security” in Florida schools.

“It’s very important we act with a sense of urgency,” Scott said, sitting with a group of sheriffs and state officials.

The deadline for Scott’s final decision on the changes he could support, if any, is fast approaching. State Republican leaders said Tuesday they are planning for a committee vote on their plans next week.

Scott’s enduring position on gun rights reflects the entrenched support for firearms in Florida, despite several of the most deadly mass shootings in U.S. history occurring in the state during his tenure.

Florida has a history of taking the lead nationally in legislating concealed-carry permits, and it has passed a “stand your ground” law, which protects citizens who use deadly force if they feel they are in imminent danger.

Scott’s stance also underscores just how careful most Republican leaders, especially those eyeing higher office, remain on the issue of guns, knowing the party’s base is wary of any push to limit the usage of guns.

Scott has become one of the NRA’s favorite elected officials. The website for the group’s annual meeting this May in Dallas lists him as a speaker earlier in the week, but his smiling photo disappeared from the website by Wednesday. A flier the NRA sent out in 2014 hailed the governor as a trusted foe of “gun control extremists.”

NRA officials made clear this week they intend to fight back against efforts to curb gun rights. The group said in a statement on Wednesday it would oppose legislation to raise the age requirement for buying rifles.

A bill authored by Florida Democrats to ban high-capacity magazines and some semiautomatic weapons failed Tuesday, as gun-control activists and students watched the vote from the state capitol. State GOP leaders said afterward they would consider more modest bills.

The slow pace of debate is a familiar replay for longtime watchers of Florida politics and its governor, although Scott has shown in the past an occasional willingness to move to the center on issues such as Medicaid expansion.

“Florida is littered with examples of people thinking it’ll be a different moment on guns, but the culture never changes,” Florida Republican consultant Rick Wilson said. “This is another one of those moments. That cold political calculus is made, and there is zero movement in Tallahassee.”

Democrats have increased their attacks. “Governor Scott, we need more than your thoughts and prayers. Stop putting the gun lobby ahead of our safety,” a narrator says in the latest ad from Giffords PAC, the political-action committee helmed by former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat.

Trump’s allies say presidential action, while at its early stages, could ultimately prod Scott to move further on guns.

“The president’s position goes beyond that, the White House wants stronger background checks,” said Christopher Ruddy, a Trump ally and the Florida-based chief executive of Newsmax Media. “The smart thing to do politically would be to require stronger background checks not only for mentally ill people but for those with criminal backgrounds and other issues. Rick is a strong conservative but he likes to be in line with the president, and Trump is the standard-bearer.”

Florida lawmakers and consultants point back to Scott’s responses to past shootings as the better way to predict his next steps.

“The Second Amendment has never shot anybody. The evil did this,” Scott told reporters two years ago following a shooting in Fort Myers, where two teenagers were killed outside of a nightclub.


The Washington Post’s Michael Scherer contributed reporting from Tallahassee.

Republished with permission of the Washington Post.

Chris King: Legislature ‘cowardly’ for running from assault rifle ban

On the debate over assault rifle bans, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris King believes the Florida Legislature is a bunch of cowards.

With the eyes of the nation on them, the GOP-led state House blocked a move by Democrats Tuesday to debate a ban on assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines in Florida, six days after a massacre that took 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Republicans explained it would have been unprecedented to take a bill stuck in a subcommittee and move it to the chamber floor for debate.

The optics have been terrible though, with national media organizations focusing on showing Parkland students who were in the gallery that afternoon crying after the vote.

Headlines from outlets like The Washington Post screamed, “Florida House refuses to debate guns, declares porn dangerous,” referring to a resolution by Dover Republican Rep. Ross Spano that declares pornography a health risk that states a need for education, research and policy changes to protect Floridians, especially teenagers, from pornography.

King said it was downright “cowardly” for the House to not even engage in a debate on the issue.

“That’s a terrible explanation,” he said about the reasoning that such bills aren’t heard out of committee while appearing on Tampa’s WMNF 88.5 FM Thursday.

“There are good people that can talk about these issues, recognize that they’re complicated, and that we need to have a debate and we need to discuss it and talk about the substance of these ideas,” he said, adding that he supported the same proposal by Orlando Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (HB 219) that was similarly never brought up for debate last year after the Pulse nightclub massacre.

“I think it’s a real absence of leadership and it’s cowardly to not even talk about solutions, to not even be willing to stand out there and say, ‘I oppose,’ as the Republicans would likely do, ‘I oppose an assault weapons ban, and here’s why.’ They don’t want to make that argument. They don’t want to stand up to folks like those students from Parkland who can’t understand why they wouldn’t do that,” King said.

On Wednesday night, U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson and Boca Raton U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch appeared before a live town-hall audience broadcast nationally by CNN in Sunrise. Missing in action was Gov. Rick Scott, an absence that King calls “tragic.”

“We need a governor to not only sooth the wounds but propose big ideas that we can get behind,” King said. “I believe that’s a big problem. We haven’t had leadership from this governor for a long time.”

A Gravis Marketing poll released earlier this week shows King with only two percent support in his contest for the Democratic nomination for governor, but the Winter Park businessman says he remains unconcerned with more than six months to go before the August primary.

“My opportunity over the next seven months is as people are messaged and as people understand where we are on these issues, they’ll be making choices,” King said, adding that the poll showed that more than two-thirds of Democratic voters haven’t decided on a candidate yet.

Noting that while his better-known opponents, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine are still relatively unknown by Democratic voters at large, King’s job is to “catch fire” and speak to voter concerns.

CNN Parkland town hall crowd expresses powerful gun-control message

If the crowd at Wednesday night’s gun discussion at the BB&T Center in Sunrise was indicative of more than just a normally Democratic community now suffering from one of the most horrific school massacres in history, then Republicans such as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and staunch 2nd Amendment advocates can find little place there.

In the CNN post-Parkland massacre town hall meeting show “Stand Up,” televised live Wednesday night, students’, teachers’, family members’ and others’  anger and conviction over the mass murder at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was clearly focused on gun control, on banning assault weapons, universal background checks and other gun laws.

That left Rubio, who joined Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, often in the spotlight of anger and pleading survivors, family and friends, as he defended 2nd Amendment positions opposing many of the gun restrictions the crowd was professing.

The trio of federal lawmakers found their roles well defined from the start, and found that the questioners, including teenagers, harbored no fear or intimidation whatsoever in pressing powerful members of Congress.

Deutch, the hometown congressman who has been a strong, longtime advocate of gun control, gave fiery calls for banning what he called “weapons of war,” and denouncing opposition to gun reforms. And for those he drew standing ovations.

Nelson, who’s been through all of this before, from previous horrible tragedies, sought to balm and inspire the crowd, declaring, “Your hope gives me hope. You’r determination gives me more determination…. You have been so strong. Keep it up.”

And on the other side was Rubio, who drew flat-out confrontations, and stood up to them with compassion and respect, and expressing sincere empathy and understanding, yet with convictions to positions the questioners and the crowd did not like. He took it.

“I want to like you. Here’s the problem: Your comments this week, and those of our president have been pathetically weak,” Rubio was told by Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime Guttenberg was killed last week.

“Tell me guns weren’t a factor in the hunting of our kids,” Guttenberg demanded.

At another point, student Michelle Lapidot asked, rhetorically, because she said she wanted to ask someone from the National Rifle Association, but there wasn’t anyone there yet, “Was the blood of my classmates and teachers worth your blood money?”

Rubio made some news pledging some concessions on gun control stands He renewed and strengthened vows to support a ban on bump stocks, an increase the minimum age for the purchase of a rifle to 21, an expansion background checks on gun purchases. Finally, he promised a new breakthrough, to consider restrictions on ammunition magazine sizes, an issue that had been front and center in the gun debate 20 months ago, in the weeks after the Pulse massacre in Orlando, and which Rubio had then strongly opposed.

The last concession was one he said has come to him from what he had learned from law enforcement briefings about what happened inside the high school last week. He said it was evidence in politics that people can change their minds.

“I traditionally have not supported looking at magazine clip size. … I’m reconsidering, and I’ll tell you why,” Rubio said. “While it may not prevent an attack, it may save lives in an attack. I believe there will be evidence that in a key moment in the incident, three or four people, three or four people, might be alive today because of something this deranged killer had to do.”

But Rubio’s other arguments, seeking to explain, for example, how complicated it could be to ban the kinds of guns that killed in Stoneman Douglas High School and in Pulse, fell flat, sounding as if he was nickel-and-diming the issues on technicalities. And he was doing so in front of young people who had stared down a blazing AR-15 just days ago, and in front of grieving parents and siblings.

At one point he asked Deutch if he would be so bold as to support a ban on all assault rifles, as if such was an absurdly-broad ban.

Deutch said yes. The crowed thundered.

Rubio looked surprised. He said, “Fair enough, fair enough.”

Still, Rubio fared better than Florida Gov. Rick Scott and President Donald Trump. CNN invited both, and they both declined. And they both suffered  numerous unanswered hits during the town hall, for not participating.

Nelson, who likely will be facing Scott later this year in the U.S. Senate race, took several opportunities to criticize the pro-2nd Amendment governor.

“My colleague and I, Marco Rubio, have a good relationship. I told him before I came out tonight he had guts coming here, when in fact there is no representative of the state of Florida here. Our governor did not come here, Gov. Scott, but Marco did,” Nelson offered.

Rubio’s empathy and connection with the crowd was not shared by his successor on the 2nd Amendment side of the issue.

In the second half of the show, CNN brought out Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel and NRA national spokeswoman Dana Loesch.

Loesch started out condescending and lecturing, trying to draw distinctions between selling weapons to people she called “nuts,” and to anyone else. Almost continuously, Loesch tried to blame the school massacre, and redirect questions and arguments, to being being about the madness of charged shooter Nikolas Cruz, and how the justice system, the schools, and society had missed all warning signs that should have signaled the blood to come, and led someone to intervene.

But the students and others, and the crowd reactions sounded as if they heard her argument as offensively irrelevant, as completely tone deaf to what they wanted to discuss: the role of the guns in Cruz’s hands. She was accused of avoiding questions, and Loesch occasionally retreated into the position of the cornered righteous.

That didn’t get by Israel, who told her she had not earned the right to tell the audience, as she had, that she fought for them. He declared there was no reason for the NRA’s opposition to universal background checks and assault weapon restrictions, declaring, “We’re calling BS on that!”

Kathy Castor hopes U.S. can learn truth about diplomat injuries in Cuba

Kathy Castor was part of a six-member group of Democratic members of Congress visiting Cuba over the past few days, but the delegation shrank to five this week when meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro.

“I came back to Tampa on Tuesday, ” Castor said in a phone call Wednesday afternoon before the rest of her colleagues visited Cuban leader.

It was Castor’s fourth trip to the communist island since 2011, but she has never met with either President Castro or his brother, the late Fidel Castro, in part because she says she wants “to turn the page.”

“I’m focused on the future, and I think the Tampa area community is as well,” she says, expressing regret that she didn’t meet up with Miguel Diaz-Canel, the first vice president of the Council of the State

Diaz-Canel is expected to succeed Castro when a transfer of power takes place in April. The 56-year-old is the first official who does not belong to the revolutionary “old guard,” since he was born after the Cuban Revolution took over in the 1950s.

Castor is the first Florida member of Congress to call for the end to the now nearly 60-year-old Cuban economic boycott after visiting the island in 2013.

Although considered a bold move in comparison to previous Cuba visitors like former Mayor Dick Greco and Representative Jim Davis, the conditions in Tampa had paved by activists and later members of the business community in Tampa who have embraced strengthening relations between the two communities.

The Greater Tampa Chamber, for example, has led several delegation trips in recent years, and wholeheartedly supported the concept of bringing a Cuban consulate to Tampa, an idea that died with President Donald Trump reversing the rapprochement during the Barack Obama era.

Castor said part of her trip (she left Florida Saturday) was to learn more about the mystery that continues to surround the strange symptoms of illness experienced by at least two dozen U.S. diplomats station in Havana.

The symptoms were first reported in late 2016 but not disclosed by the State Department until August of 2017. In response, Washington expelled 17 Cuban diplomats from Washington, and ordered most of its own diplomatic personnel from Havana back to U.S. soil and limited travel there to emergency personnel.

The Castro government condemned the purported attacks and denied any involvement but later called into question the integrity of the incidents.

A report by U.S. medical experts from the University of Pennsylvania, published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., concluded the diplomatic personnel suffered brain injuries without evidence of head trauma. The Americans reported a range of symptoms including hearing loss, headaches, dizziness, nausea and loss of concentration.

Initially, the U.S. government blamed the symptoms on “sonic” or “acoustic” attacks but has since backed off those labels.

The Penn group could not determine a cause, saying that any “sensory phenomena” was of “unclear origin.”

Briefed by intelligence officials, Castor reviewed the Penn study and said it’s clear that it was no sonar or acoustic attack, but agreed something did happen to the diplomats.

Castor doesn’t believe the Cuban government had any motivation for the incident, since it has only frayed the improving relations between the two nations, which began to thaw with Obama’s diplomatic breakthrough in December 2014.

If not Cuba, though, she says it’s unclear who would have a motive.

“Some rogue element? Some other country? There simply isn’t any evidence to point in any one direction or another,” she said, adding that she hopes U.S. intelligence agencies can ultimately learn the truth.

While critics of U.S. outreach to Cuba (such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio) are continuing to criticize human rights violations of the Castro government. Obama overtures were fruitless since the Cuban government has continued such activities, they say.

But Castor has always championed the loosening of regulations that allow the Cuban people to become more entrepreneurial. However, in her recent excursion, Castor saw less growth in small business movement.

After talking to some small business owners over the past several days, Castor said: “It really appears that the economic reforms on the island have stalled.”

According to Castor, one factor hurting the Cuban people is that the government continues to sustain two separate currencies — one for everyday Cubans, and another for visitors.

Last fall, the Trump administration rescinded one of the most significant Obama-era changes regarding “people-to-people” visas for Americans to travel to Cuba.

The Obama White House had expanded those categories, allowing U.S. travelers for the first time to book a flight online to Havana, buy people-to-people visas at U.S. airport counters, then go on their trip.

Now, travelers need to be accompanied by a U.S.-based tour guide, who must ensure they engage in approved activities that help the Cuban people.

That’s put a sizable dent in the number of visitors who now travel to Cuba from the U.S., Castor said.

Joe Henderson: Only lowest of low would spread lies about Parkland students

What kind of vermin would say two Parkland students grieving from last week’s massacre at their high school were really actors who were being paid to make gun owners look bad?

I think we can all agree this represents the lowest of the low. Well, apparently not “all” of us. Helping spread that lie is why Benjamin Kelly lost his job Tuesday night as an aide to Republican state Rep. Shawn Harrison of Tampa.

Kelly sent an unsolicited note to Alex Leary, Washington correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times, that said, “Both kids in the picture are not students here but actors that travel to various crisis when they happen.”

When Leary asked for proof, he was provided with a link to a YouTube conspiracy video. Not long after, Kelly was out of a job.

Yes, Kelly got what he deserved for spreading crap even as funerals are being held for victims of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. But I ask again, what kind of horrible human being tries to turn an unfathomable tragedy into a personal attack on two students because they dared to speak out in the first place?

Well, someone did. They must be very proud today.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio summed it up as well as anyone by tweeting this was the work of a “disgusting group of idiots with no sense of decency.”

I got into a long back-and-forth on Facebook Tuesday night about that subject with a guy I knew back in high school a long, long time ago but hadn’t kept up with. He was adamant the story was real and that I was a big part of the problem because I didn’t believe it.

He noted, “Yesterday CNN was caught using professional actors claiming to be Parkland students demanding gun control. My question is, when can we expect to read your column condemning CNN for this shameful and unprofessional journalistic practice.”

I could almost hear him stomping his foot. He wouldn’t accept overwhelming evidence that the story was fabricated. He wouldn’t accept the word of the Broward County school superintendent that the two people in questions were students.

He had read it somewhere on wing nut media, and it had to be true.

This is what we’re up against.

Back in the day, I can remember having a good chuckle at headlines on tabloids like the National Enquirer as I stood in the grocery store checkout line. That was about as crazy as it got.

Now, there is a whole industry devoted to tin foil hats and deranged conspiracies. This might be a good time to remember that then-candidate Donald Trump helped further that when he told chief kook Alex Jones that his reputation is “amazing.”

The president also has regular attacks on individuals, the foundations of government, the media (of course) and, well, you know.

Separately, the nonsense is easy to dismiss. But then something like this happens and we can see how it all comes together. We can’t even take comfort (if comfort is to be found) that it’s all just Facebook babble, not when it reaches into the office of a Florida state representative and belittles two Parkland students who just lived through a horror.

There have always been people who believe 9/11 was an inside job and that we faked the moon landing, but usually they were contained in their own little bubble.

No more.

In their world, truth is whatever they want it to be. Facts are lies. Everything is a cover-up.

And the crazier it gets, the more likely they are to believe.

That’s no lie.

Activists call out Donald Trump’s ‘Cover up Caucus’ on Russian investigation

For Presidents Day, activists in downtown St. Petersburg rallied to criticize congressional Republicans who they say have been silent or actively working to end special counsel Robert Mueller‘s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Mueller laid out charges Friday against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities in a sweeping indictment describing in detail a years-long effort by Russians to interfere with the U.S. political system.

The indictments confirmed the conclusions of the country’s intelligence community but flew in the face of President Donald Trump‘s questioning of the probe.

In the eyes of some Republicans (like Marco Rubio), the indictments confirmed that Russia did attempt to disrupt the election — and are likely to do so again. Others, like Panhandle Representative Matt Gaetz, have been pushing to fire Mueller. In November, Gaetz introduced a nonbinding resolution calling for the House to endorse Mueller’s dismissal.

“These Republicans see their only role as protecting the president, and not the country,” said Andrea Hildebran Smith with the group FACT (Floridians against Corruption and Treason).

“We call them the ‘Cover-up Caucus’ … We expect members of Congress to use every tool at their disposal to protect this country.”

The liberal activists also are unhappy with Trump for announcing that he will not impose additional sanctions on Russia for its meddling in the 2016 U.S. election as well as its aggression in east Ukraine. Congress passed a law last year calling on the president to do so.

“We want protection for this special counsel to finish his investigation,” said Karen Berman with Fired Up Pinellas, who along with organized Monday’s protest in front of the federal building on First Avenue North in downtown St. Pete.

“We want to see the latest Russian sanctions enforced, and we want to see the state and federal government take steps to protect our elections from any interference,” Berman added.

Over the summer, amid reports that Trump was considering firing Mueller, members of both parties were compelled to introduce legislation to prevent that from happening.

While four bills have been filed in Congress to protect Mueller’s investigation, none will likely go anywhere in the GOP-led House and Senate.

Two bills have been introduced in the Senate, both bipartisan. Sponsored by North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, the Special Counsel Integrity Act would only permit the firing of a special counsel in the event of “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity or conflict of interest.”

Sponsored by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, the Special Counsel Independence Protection Act that would require an extensive judicial process to do so.

The Act has been stuck in the Senate Judiciary Committee for the past couple of months.

There are similar bills in the House of Representatives, which have a little more support. One, introduced by Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, has 31 co-sponsors, all Democrats.

One Democrat who hopes to make it to Congress later this year is Chris Hunter, a former FBI agent now running in the District 12th Congressional District Democratic primary.

“Our democracy has been compromised, and it will happen again,” he predicted, “because some of our elected officials are running their same type of disinformation campaign against our own country that Russian intelligence services have run.”

Hunter served in the Department of Justice under the administrations of both Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama.

Not once, Hunter said, did political officials in either of those administrations “purposely set out to destabilize our democratic institutions.”

“Not only has our current president fail to protect our country, the Republican Congress has been complicit in that failure,” he added.

The winner of the Democratic primary in CD 12 will face Republican incumbent Gus Bilirakis this November. Bilirakis has not publicly commented on the Mueller investigation, according to statements published on his congressional website over the past year.

As a former FBI agent, Florida Politics asked Hunter what he thought of Gov. Rick Scott‘s comment last week that FBI Director Christopher Wray should resign in the wake of revelations that the bureau ignored a tip last month about Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17  people after he opened fire on a Parkland school on Valentine’s Day.

“I think it’s disgraceful to politicize the massacre in Parkland,” Hunter said.

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