Latin America hawks have begun lobbying their allies in Congress to press the incoming Joe Biden team not to abandon the Donald Trump administration’s hard line on Cuba and Venezuela.
A newly disclosed lobbying filing from The Cormac Group reveals that lobbyist Jose Cardenas emailed a top staffer for Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on the eve of Antony Blinken‘s nomination hearing Tuesday to serve as secretary of State. Cardenas emailed Rubio’s senior adviser for Western Hemisphere affairs, Viviana Bovo, with pointed questions to ask Blinken about US concerns with Cuba’s medical diplomacy as well as alleged Venezuelan threats to neighboring Guyana.
The email’s subject was “Possible QFRs,” the Questions for the Record that committee members can submit to witnesses and nominees after a hearing. It is not unusual for lobbyists and advocacy groups to recommend questions for lawmakers to ask at hearings.
Neither Cardenas nor Bovo responded to requests for comment about any potential follow-through.
The Cormac Group disclosed Cardenas’ outreach to Rubio because the firm is a registered foreign agent of the government of Guyana under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Guyana’s government hired Cormac for $25,000 per month earlier this month after the firm lobbied on behalf of presidential candidate Irfaan Ali‘s victorious campaign last year.
Cardenas’ questions offer behind-the-scenes insights into the concerns of Guyana, a small and impoverished country that stands to reap a massive windfall from recent oil discoveries off its coast.
“In recent days, Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro has been making threatening remarks towards neighboring Guyana over a territorial dispute dating back to the 19th century,” Cardenas wrote. “The Trump administration has stood by Guyana in the face of Maduro’s threats and believes the territorial dispute should be resolved at the International Court of Justice, which Maduro has rejected. Will the Biden administration continue to support Guyana in this matter— including its right to develop its energy resources without intimidation— and warn Maduro his pressuring of Guyana will have regional consequences if it continues?”
Cardenas served as acting assistant administrator for Latin America and Caribbean at the US Agency for International Development (USAID) under President George W. Bush. He is also a registered lobbyist for The Cormac Group for two US-based groups, the Venezuelan American Alliance and the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, which advocate for human rights and democracy in those two countries. His questions regarding Cuban doctors appear to involve the latter lobbying account.
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In his email to Bovo, Cardenas sought to press Blinken on his plans to tackle State Department allegations that Cuba uses forced labor and coerces its medical professionals to participate in medical mission programs abroad. One asked what the State Department would do under Blinken to “demand transparency, and legal, fair, and human treatment for Cuban medical personnel serving abroad.”
Other questions about future US-Cuban policy followed a similar grain. Two touched on allegations that the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) played a role in hiring Cuban doctors abroad. A group of Cuban doctors has filed a federal lawsuit against the Washington-based organization for allegedly organizing and profiting from Cuban medical missions to Brazil.
“I am a supporter of PAHO, but do not believe that an organization that receives tens of millions of US taxpayer dollars every year should participate in and profit from forced labor, much less ignore the US embargo of Cuba with impunity,” Cardenas suggested Rubio write to Blinken. “Do you believe PAHO should be immune from civil liability if it collected unauthorized funds in violating a federal law against forced labor? What steps would you take to hold PAHO accountable for its actions?”
Cardenas also asked Rubio to raise concerns that while PAHO, under pressure from the State Department, has retained an outside law firm to review its actions in Brazil, Congress has been denied information about the process.
“Do you believe such a review offers any possibility of accountability by PAHO,” Cardenas’ proposed questions ask, “either to the victims or to US taxpayers whose money was used to facilitate human trafficking to enrich the Cuban government?”
Another question asked if Blinken would reinstate the Homeland Security Department’s Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which allowed doctors serving on missions to migrate to the US before the Barack Obama administration terminated it just before Trump took office in January 2017.
The correspondence hints at Latin America hawks’ concerns about the push for closer US-Cuban relations under Biden.
The new president has criticized his predecessor’s policies with regard to the country, which were marked with trade and travel restrictions. And one of the members of his agency review team for the State Department was Emily Mendrala, the executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), a group whose stated mission is to “change hearts and minds about US relations with Cuba.”
Rubio did not bring up Cardenas’ specific questions during Tuesday’s nomination hearing, but he did briefly discuss both Cuba and Venezuela with Blinken.
Asked if the Biden administration planned to maintain Trump’s restrictions on US financial transactions with the island given the control exercised by the Cuban military over money-making ventures, Blinken said some restrictions made “very very good sense” to him but that he would need to find out more.
Regarding Venezuela, Blinken said the Biden administration would continue to recognize Juan Guaido as the legitimate president of Venezuela even as he called for recalibrating US sanctions and better coordinating with allies to achieve the elusive goal of restoring democracy to the country.