Gov. Rick Scott signs bill to restrict Cuba and Syria trade, then backpedals

Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill on Tuesday banning the state and local governments from hiring companies that do business in Cuba or Syria, basking in applause from a crowd filled with Florida's politically influential Cuban exile leaders.

But in a surprise turn an hour later, Scott wrote that the bill would not be implemented until Congress passed a law authorizing such a measure, essentially seeking to nullify the very law he'd just taken credit for signing. The move infuriated the community that hours earlier had lauded him and called for his reelection in 2014.

Scott said at the bill signing ceremony that although many Floridians remain unemployed, it was important to send a message that the state is principled.

"If we don't stand up against tyranny, if we don't stand up for political freedom...then why are we here?" he asked the packed audience at Miami's Freedom Tower. Thousands fleeing Fidel Castro's revolution first received health care and were processed by immigration officers in the 1960s at the historic building overlooking Biscayne Bay.

He made no mention then about concerns the law could be construed as seeking to usurp federal powers. The law states that it will take effect July 12, 2012. But in the signing letter the governor issues to explain his intent, Scot wrote, "the restrictions will not go into effect unless and until Congress passes, and the president signs, a law permitting states to independently pass impose such sanctions against Syria and Cuba."

Brian Burgess, a spokesman for the governor, pointed out that Scott had publicly stated ahead of time that he could not enforce the law until there was action at the federal level.

"The governor made it very clear on the radio that we need a federal partner to be able to enforce this law," Burgess said. "He supports the law, he supports the community and he believes these regimes are oppressive. He's frustrated too, but he calls on the Obama administration to allow this law to go into effect."

Florida International University Political Science Professor Dario Moreno said the law could still go into effect, but if the governor chooses not to enforce it, it's essentially invalid.

"Obviously, he signed the law because of the Cuban vote for 2014, but he also faced a lot of political pressure from businesses against it. This looks like he was talking out of both sides of his mouth," said Moreno, who attended the ceremony.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, of the conservative US-Cuba Democracy PAC, called Scott's letter "a wink and a nod" to foreign businesses who might otherwise be affected by the law.

Influential business interests and the governments of Florida's top two trading partners, Brazil and Canada, have warned the law would discourage investment from foreign firms. It is unclear which, or how many, companies would be affected by the legislation.

"He has the grand ceremony with the entire community and then basically makes a joke of it by saying it won't go into effect till Congress passes a law. He wants to have it both ways. This is the worst thing he could do. He now has a real political problem," Claver-Carone said.

The law prohibits contracts of more than $1 million but is not retroactive. It comes as a subsidiary of the Brazilian company Odebrecht, which also does business in Cuba, has won many of South Florida's biggest construction projects including: the American Airlines Arena, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and the South Terminal at Miami International Airport. The company's U.S. subsidiary is based in the Miami suburb of Coral Gables. A separate subsidiary has a contract with the port of Mariel in Cuba and is looking to help the island expand its sugar production.

Florida had previously passed similar bills covering contracts with Sudan and Iran. Those countries, along with Cuba and Syria, are labeled by the federal government as state sponsors of terror.

More than 20 states have similar laws aimed at at least one of these countries, according to Ana Carbonell, a longtime advocate for tighter sanctions against Cuba who pushed for the legislation.

She said she was dumbfounded by the governor's action. "I've never seen anything like it," said Carbonell.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla, who heads the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said the law was particularly needed now because the Cuban government has been more aggressive in seeking business in Florida. She also said she expects it will wind up in court.

"Even if its constitutionality is challenged, it's still the right thing to do for many reasons," she said. "This law will make people wake up and smell the café."

During the morning's ceremony, former Republican U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who now heads an organization that supports human rights in Cuba, noted the state has targeted only the four countries identified as state sponsors of terror. Companies and individuals seeking to do business with those countries already face certain restrictions, including controls on exports and limits on tax credits.

Diaz-Balart said he was confident the new legislation was "absolutely, fully complementary and consistent with federal law."

For example, the law does not include China or North Korea, although they are communist countries with significant records of human rights abuses.

Tuesday's signing drew bipartisan support in the exile community.

Gus Garcia, a former head of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party, said he backed the measure because it focuses on companies that have major contracts with the Cuban government and would not affect a Cuban-American family that wants to send money to cousins in Cuba so they can open a small business.

The event also had the feel of a campaign event, with one member of the audience holding up a sign supporting Scott for election.

Follow Laura Wides-Munoz on twitter: (at)lwmunoz

Associated Press writer Gary Fineout in Tallahassee contributed to this report.

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