Delegation for 7.16.21: Cuban internet — BLM — Surfside — COVID-19 origins — Veep meet

capitol u.s. green 9.30.19
Free Wi-fi for Cuban protesters? The U.S. can make it happen.

Restoring service

Many members of Florida’s Congressional delegation kept their attention turned south toward Cuba through the week. Federal officials want President Joe Biden to provide material support for protesters, including delivering internet access. The service call comes after a blackout of communications most attributed to Cuban government efforts to squash dissent. 

Reps. On Thursday, Carlos Giménez and María Elvira Salazar hosted a news conference with Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr, making clear the U.S. has the technological capacity to restore service. Gov. Ron DeSantis and Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez participated in the news conference as well.

Members of the delegation want Cuban protesters to have free Wi-fi, courtesy of the U.S. Image via AP.

“While Cuba’s communist regime is blocking internet access in an effort to hide their brutal crackdown on freedom, American enterprises have the technical capability to beam connectivity to the Cuban people and help power their real and ongoing struggle for life and liberty,” Carr, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, said in an official FCC news release. “With the backing and authorization of the federal government, these private-sector innovators can get to work immediately.”

He noted the U.S. Agency for Global Media since the 1980s had run Radio Television Marti, broadcasting messages of freedom to Cubans, so the U.S. has an imperative to keep communications running. “internet shutdowns are increasingly becoming a tool of tyranny for authoritarian regimes across the globe,” Carr said. “America must stand against this anti-democratic tactic and move with haste to provide internet freedom to the Cuban people.”

South Florida’s Republican members stepped up demands for the Biden administration to take action.

“I demand that President Biden deploy all technological capabilities to reestablish telecoms for the Cuban people,” Giménez posted on Twitter. “An open internet is crucial to support the freedom fighters in Cuba exposing, and fighting against, the misery created by the communist regime.”

Salazar said the confirmation from the FCC of what’s possible should add urgency for the administration. “We’re ready to provide internet access to Cuba,” she wrote on social media. “President Biden, grant the approval NOW!”

Blasting BLM

Sen. Marco Rubio and other Florida Republicans slammed Black Lives Matter for defending the Cuban government amid historic anti-communist protests.

On Wednesday evening, Black Lives Matter issued a statement placing the blame for economic conditions on U.S. policy.

Yeah, this went over like a lead balloon with Florida Republicans.

“Black Lives Matter condemns the U.S. federal government’s inhumane treatment of Cubans and urged it to immediately lift the economic embargo,” the statement reads. “This cruel and inhumane policy, instituted with the explicit intention of destabilizing the country and undermining Cubans’ right to choose their own government, is at the heart of Cuba’s current crisis. Since 1962, the United States has forced pain and suffering on the people of Cuba by cutting off food, medicine and supplies, costing the tiny island nation an estimated $130 billion.”

The statement praises the Cuban government for demonstrating “solidarity with oppressed peoples of African descent.”

Rubio, a first-generation Cuban American, slammed the defensive rhetoric. Florida’s senior Senator has defended sanctions for years and criticized former President Barack Obama in 2016 for his efforts to normalize relations with the Cuban regime.

“The extortionist ring known as the Black Lives Matter organization took a break today from shaking down corporations for millions and buying themselves mansions to share their support for the Communist regime in Cuba,” Rubio said.

Sarasota Republican Greg Steube also took a shot at the group.

“What a load of garbage,” the Congressman tweeted. “One communist organization defending another. These people are waving American flags and protesting a brutal communist regime that has oppressed them for generations.”

Rubio later in the day suggested where BLM leaders could go to make their point.

My office stands ready to help the leaders of the Black Lives Matter organization emigrate to Cuba,” he tweeted.

Recognizing Surfside

The tragic collapse of Champlain Towers South drew the attention of the country. Now, the Senate has passed a resolution remembering those lost.

The Senate passed a resolution introduced by Sens. Rubio and Rick Scott honoring the lives taken in the June 24 incident, and commend the bravery of search, rescue and recovery teams at the site.

I was on the ground in Surfside following the collapse talking to families, first responders, and members of the community,” Scott, a Naples Republican, said in a floor speech.

“We continue to pray for the Surfside community, our Jewish community, the families and loved ones of the lost, and all of those working tirelessly to serve the Surfside community. The pain these families and all affected by this tragedy are experiencing is heartbreaking and unimaginable. In the face of tremendous loss, our first responders ran into the danger. They are heroes that came from across Florida, the United States, and from Israel and Mexico. We can never thank these brave men and women enough for their bravery and determination in the face of this terrible tragedy. In the weeks and months ahead, I will be relentless in the search for answers to make sure this never happens again.”

To watch Scott’s Senate remarks, click on the image below:

Rubio, a Miami Republican, has also been to the scene and said South Florida would be dealing with the loss for some time.

“Nothing we can say or do will rebuild the families decimated by the Surfside tragedy,” he said. “As we honor the victims and pay tribute to our heroic first responders, we must continue to support them and our community. It is a long road ahead, but the outpouring of support from around the world is comforting. It reaffirms that with faith and unity, we will overcome this tragedy one day at a time.”

On Friday morning, officials confirmed 97 deaths, with just a handful of individuals unaccounted for, and have suggested recovery efforts must end soon.

Origin story

St. Augustine Republican Michael Waltz entered into a tense exchange with an expert witness at a subcommittee hearing on the origins of the coronavirus.

The ranking member of the Research and Technology Subcommittee, Waltz, pressed Dr. Stanley Perlman, an immunology professor at the University of Iowa, on why he co-signed a letter in March 2020 that “strongly condemned conspiracy theories that suggested COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” 

Many now believe the virus leaked from a lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, in China.

“The Chinese cover-up has been abhorrent,” Waltz said. “But just as inexcusable is the scientific community who has not been objective, who has effectively shut off lines of research, whose livelihoods depend on funding pertaining to that research and who could be compromised.”

Add Michael Waltz to those who think a Wuhan lab is where COVID-19 began.

Perlman said his position when he signed the letter was pushing back at suggestions the virus had been intentionally engineered. “The statement was based on the notion that this was constructed from scratch,” he said. “So that was really what the letter was about. I don’t think it was defined well enough in that letter. But that’s what the discussion was about.”

That didn’t satisfy Waltz. “What that letter had the effect of doing was shutting off very viable lines of investigation into whether this came from that lab, which we are funding with U.S. taxpayer dollars indirectly or directly. We can’t stop the next pandemic, the last three of which came from China, without understanding where it came from.”

“I’m trying to wrap my mind around what could be the world’s biggest coincidence,” Waltz said. 

According to the Congressman, that’s the possibility the virus, which indisputably surfaced first in Wuhan, might have a natural origin in the only city in China that also has a research facility studying coronavirus attributes in a major lab.

Haitian diaspora

Orlando Democrat Val Demings and the other co-chairs of the House Haiti Caucus called on the Biden administration to turn some attention to helping the Haitian diaspora in the United States and relatives in Haiti.

Demings, with Democrats Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Yvette Clarke of New York and Andy Levin of Michigan, sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas calling for the reinstatement of the lapsed Haitian Family Reunification Parole program. That would allow eligible U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to apply for parole for their family members in Haiti who cannot be reunited because of a yearslong backlog in visa processing.

Additionally, the lawmakers called on DHS to halt all deportations of Haitian migrants amid the political crisis.

The lawmakers’ letter follows the recent assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, which has threatened to destabilize the country further.

The assassination of Jovenel Moise threatens to destabilize Haiti. Image via AP.

“The violence, extreme poverty, and political instability that has plagued Haiti over the last several years have resulted in grave trauma to the Haitian people and across the Haitian diaspora,” lawmakers wrote in their letter. 

“It is incumbent upon the United States and the entire global community to come together in support of the people of Haiti as well as the more.”

Puerto Rico Medicaid

Kissimmee Democrat Darren Soto and Palm Harbor Republican Gus Bilirakis won a committee action Thursday to get the Medicaid program extended for at least five years in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories.

HR 4406, sponsored by Soto with Bilirakis as the lead co-sponsor, got marked up Thursday by the House Energy & Commerce Health Subcommittee, approved, and sent to the full committee.

Their Supporting Medicaid in the U.S. territories Act of 2021 would provide five years of Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico and eight years for other U.S. territories.

Darren Soto and Gus Bilirakis get traction on extending Medicaid for Puerto Rico.

“For far too long, Puerto Rico’s health system has operated with uncertainty regarding its Medicaid system,” Soto stated in a news release. “This has led to a breakdown in health care and eroding of hospitals there. This steady funding will be foundational for building Puerto Rico’s health care system back better.”

The bill is a bipartisan deal extending increased funding and Medical Assistance Percentages at current levels, 76% of stateside funding for Puerto Rico and 83% for Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa. 

HR 4406 is co-sponsored by Reps. Jenniffer González Colón of Puerto Rico, Michael F.Q. San Nicolas of Guam, Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen if American Samoa, Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan of Northern Mariana Islands, and Stacey Plaskett of U.S. Virgin Islands.

Training reforms

After the Government Accountability Office issued a damning report on training accidents, Longboat Key Republican Vern Buchanan wants proposed reforms to become law as soon as possible.

It’s a personal issue for Buchanan, who has worked closely with the family of Bradenton Army Specialist Nicholas Panipinto

“As evidenced by this shocking new report, there are glaring and widespread deficiencies in current military training and safety procedures,” Buchanan said. “We must take swift action to improve our military training capabilities and, more importantly, save lives. No family deserves to face the pain and suffering that Nick’s family has faced.”

After the death of Nicholas Panipinto, Vern Buchanan is calling for better training on military transportation equipment. Image via Buchanan’s office.

Panipinto’s family still lives in Florida’s 16th Congressional District. “The heartbreaking death of my constituent, Nicholas Panipinto, was 100% preventable,” Buchanan said.

Military leadership has acknowledged as much already. Panipinto lacked the training to drive the vehicle he manned during an exercise at Camp Humphreys. The base lacked the emergency response capabilities to respond to a crash that subsequently occurred. Panipinto had to wait an unacceptable time for medical treatment and died at a South Korean hospital two hours away.

The GAO has offered nine recommendations to the Department of Defense to improve safety and potentially prevent a similar incident from happening again. Buchanan plans to file legislation to require those reforms to go into effect.

The GAO says the Army and Marine Corps must clearly define roles and establish procedures and mechanisms to help supervisors enhance tactical vehicle safety and develop performance criteria and measurable standards for driver training.

“It is imperative that the Pentagon adopt these new common-sense proposals in a timely manner,” Buchanan said. “In the meantime, I will be drafting legislation requiring their enactment in order to ensure no more lives are needlessly lost,” he said.

Buchanan noted the Congressional Research Service reported 32% of active duty deaths in the military between 2006 and 2018 resulted from training accidents.

Improving VA

Stuart Republican Brian Mast introduced several pieces of legislation he says will improve access to health care for veterans and make the system more efficient.

The Improving Veterans Access to Congress bill will allow Representatives and Senators to open satellite offices within Veterans Affairs Department medical centers. Mast already had one, the first of its kind, in the West Palm Beach Veterans Affairs facility, but he was evicted in 2019.

The Oath of Exit Act would provide a support network for veterans seeking help for their mental health. It would aim at a stigma around such treatment and encourage veterans to support one another as they transition out of military service.

Brian Mast is going to bat once again for the VA.

Finally, the Congressman filed the Leadership Evaluation at the Department of Veterans Affairs Act. The LEAD VA Act would launch a pilot program where active military-run VA centers to improve the level of care.

“Hardly a day goes by when I don’t receive a call from a veteran who needs help navigating the red tape of the VA,” Mast said. “ It’s clear that our system is not meeting their needs, and when it comes to treating mental health, that can be deadly. We owe it to them to explore creative solutions to ensure that they have the care that they need, which is why I’m introducing these bills.” 

Foreign threats

If a foreign government threatens American service members, Congress should hear about it. As soon as possible.

That’s the point of HR 4424, which Miami Republican Salazar co-sponsored with Winter Park Democrat Stephanie Murphy this week. They entitled it the: Deadly Escalation by Foreign Entities Notification and Disclosure (DEFEND) Act.”

The pair filed the bill to require the Secretary of Defense to swiftly brief critical members of Congress if the secretary determines, with high confidence, that a foreign government is deliberately seeking to kill or severely injure American service members, either directly or indirectly through proxy forces.

Once notified, Congress could be in a position to take action.

Maria Salazar and Stephanie Murphy want the U.S. to know when servicemembers are threatened.

The bill follows reports last year that Russia put bounties on American service members in Afghanistan. HR 4424 is a modified version of a bill Murphy introduced the previous year.

“Nothing is more important than the safety of our troops. If the Secretary of Defense has high confidence that a foreign government — whether Russia, Iran, or any other country — is sponsoring lethal attacks against our service members, Congress should immediately be notified so we can take all appropriate steps — on a bipartisan basis — to protect our troops and hold the perpetrators accountable,” Murphy, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said.

“Our service members and their families are deployed across the globe defending our freedom and put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe,” said Salazar, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “We must notify our troops when foreign nations target American lives. I’m proud to co-lead this bill so the Secretary of Defense will notify Congress immediately when foreign governments take aim at our soldiers. Doing so will help save lives.” 

Cuba advisory

On Thursday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced he would create a Leader’s Advisory Team on issues regarding Cuba. Hialeah Republican Mario Diaz-Balart was given a prominent spot in the group, to the surprise of no one.

We’ll use this platform to advise House Republicans and the American people on the atrocities committed by the Cuban dictatorship and maintain solidarity with the Cuban people,” Diaz-Balart tweeted. “Together, we’ll work for the cause of freedom.

A Cuban American and part of a family of South Florida political leaders, Diaz-Balart has been among the strongest voices in Congress in support of Cuba for close to 20 years.

Both Gimenez and Salazar will also be part of the team.

Mario Diaz-Balart gets a primo spot on the House Cuba advisory board.

McCarthy clearly sees the protests that erupted on the island this week to bring policy (and political) consequences for some time. He made clear the GOP caucus in the House will give its support to pro-democracy voices.

The world has witnessed powerful images coming out of Cuba over the last five days,” McCarthy said. “With thousands of Cubans in more than 40 cities and small towns taking to the streets, the protests mark a historic moment in a society whose Communist system has oppressed its citizens for more than 60 years. Their sudden eruption across Cuba is a dramatic and necessary repudiation of the Cuban communist regime. The Cuban people are risking everything to free themselves, their families, their country, and their futures from their socialist prison.”

Notably, Diaz-Balart introduced a resolution in the House, which was co-sponsored by every Republican in the Florida delegation, calling for international solidarity with the Cuban people fighting an oppressive government.

He also led a letter this week, along with McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise, pressuring the Biden administration to lend material support to protesters. While Biden by Thursday evening labeled Cuba a failed communist state, the letter dragged the administration for a slow response to events that erupted over the weekend and specifically labeled Acting Assistant Secretary of State Julie Chung’s early statements as “pallid” for attributing unrest to the COVID-19 pandemic with no demand for freedom or democracy.

“We were also particularly alarmed your Administration weakened sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry the following day,” the letter reads.

Ultimately, Diaz-Balart’s letter ended on a note of optimism for his ancestral home and cautioned the administration to act accordingly. 

“The Cuban people will be free,” he wrote, “and they will remember those who stood with them.”

Meeting with Veep

Florida disabled advocate Faith Olivia Babis joined a roundtable discussion with Vice President Kamala Harris this week on voting access. Babis, a senior public policy analyst for Disability Rights Florida, said she felt excited just that the conversation happened at all.

“For the Vice President to reserve an hour to meet with the disabled community is a big deal,” she said. “We are not normally included in discussions about us.”

Born without arms, it’s critically important to Babis that assistance be available t polling places for those who require it to fill out a ballot. Much of the conversation also revolved around handicap ramps and transportation issues. During the pandemic, Babis said, many access issues last year were only exacerbated.

Faith Olivia Babis gets some facetime with Kamala Harris. Image via Facebook.

One chief concern was supervised voting at nursing homes, which was not allowed in many parts of the country last year, including in Florida. Normally in this state, nursing homes and assisted living facilities can let elections officials into a facility to help with voting, but only if five or more residents ask for it. Babis said it’s a complicated process in many ways, but the only way many could vote.

Babis ultimately said the community was heard. “It felt like a very positive meeting,” she said.

On this day

July 16, 1945 — “The first atomic bomb test is successfully exploded” via History.com — At 5:29:45 a.m., the Manhattan Project yielded explosive results as the first atomic bomb was successfully tested in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Plans for creating a uranium bomb by the Allies were established as early as 1939 when Italian émigré physicist Enrico Fermi met with U.S. Navy department officials at Columbia University to discuss fissionable materials for military use purposes. That same year, Albert Einstein signed a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt supporting the theory that an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction had great potential as a basis for a weapon of mass destruction.

July 16, 1969 — “Apollo 11 launches into history” via NASA — The Apollo 11 mission was launched via a Saturn V rocket with Commander Neil Armstrong, command module pilot Michael Collins and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex Pad 39A. In a little more than eight years after the flights of Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard, followed quickly by President John F. Kennedy‘s challenge to put a man on the Moon before the decade is out, Apollo 11 launched on its historic mission. On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 crew completed that mission.

Staff Reports


One comment

  • DR LARRY MYERS

    July 16, 2021 at 2:06 pm

    In San Francisco a Cuba protest is happening in the Mission today. Playwright/Human Rights Activist Dr. Larry Myers commandeers this with Playwrights Sanctuary participants. The stage work
    “Santeria Street Theater’ gave a sneak preview at the Backyard Theater in the Castro- a found theater space.

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