Posted on Tuesday, 03.13.12
New Florida law prohibits Miami-Dade, other governments from hiring
companies tied to Cuba
Florida legislators have voted to restrict state and local governments
from inking contracts with companies tied to Cuba or Syria. The measure
appeared directed at one of Miami-Dade County government's largest
contractors, Odebrecht USA.
By Patricia Mazzei and Martha Brannigan
Delving into Miami-Dade's tricky exile politics, Florida lawmakers
passed sweeping but little-noticed legislation this session prohibiting
local governments from hiring companies that do business with Cuba.
The law appears to target one of the county's largest contractors:
Odebrecht USA, the Coral Gables-based subsidiary of the giant Brazilian
conglomerate. The parent company's Cuban affiliate is participating in a
major expansion at the Port of Mariel.
Miami-Dade legislators, with near-unanimous support of the Florida House
of Representatives and Senate, pushed the bill as a way to keep taxpayer
dollars out of the hands of repressive regimes. The law also applies to
companies that work in Syria, which, like Cuba, is on the U.S. list of
state sponsors of terrorism.
"It puts the decision on the companies that are affected," said Rep.
Michael Bileca, a Miami Republican and one of the bill's sponsors. "Do
they want to do business in Florida, or do they want to do business in
Yet a major portion of the legislation, which applies to contracts worth
at least $1 million, seems likely to face a court challenge for
interfering with the federal government's power to set foreign policy,
Statutes limiting local governments' contracting decisions based on the
vendor's international work oversteps a state's power, said Dan
O'Flaherty, vice president of the Washington D.C.-based National Foreign
Trade Council, which advocates trade with Cuba.
"It's unconstitutional," he said, citing a 2000 Trade Council case in
which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law restricting
state businesses from dealing with companies with ties to Myanmar,
formerly known as Burma.
"States are barred by the Supreme Court decision from enacting
procurement sanctions targeting companies doing business in foreign
country 'X,' " added O'Flaherty, whose organization sent letters to Gov.
Rick Scott and House and Senate leaders in opposition.
In general, state and local governments are barred from setting policy
that conflicts with federal law.
A Florida House staff analysis suggested Congress has authorized the
type of contractual restrictions in the legislation, which takes effect
July 1 and is not retroactive. But Miami-Dade has lost past battles over
In 2007, county attorneys advised that Miami-Dade couldn't consider
contractors' Cuba ties in awarding the Port of Miami tunnel project.
Activists opposed giving work to Bouygues Travaux Publics because an
affiliate of the French firm built 11 resorts in ventures with the Cuban
And in 2000, a federal judge struck down the county's "Cuba affidavits,"
which tried to deny funding to nonprofits with ties to the island.
Bruce Rogow, who challenged that policy, predicted the new law — if it
passes muster with the governor — won't stand.
"It's unenforceable," said Rogow, a constitutional law professor at Nova
Southeastern University. "If there is no federal law making it illegal
to do business with Cuba or Syria, state law can't make it so."
Not so, countered Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of pro-embargo
U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee.
"This doesn't say Odebrecht USA has to leave," said Claver-Carone, who
has criticized the firm on his blog, Capitol Hill Cubans. "They can stay
and do private business in Florida. It basically does not allow for
public taxpayer money to be used — that is money from many of the
victims of the Cuban government."
Though the new legislation doesn't name Odebrecht, Claver-Carone called
the firm "the most egregious" example of a foreign company doing
business in Florida and Cuba through subsidiaries.
Largely by landing lucrative deals with local governments, Odebrecht USA
has flourished in Miami for two decades, operating like a homegrown
Florida company. Gilberto Neves, the local subsidiary's president and
CEO, is a U.S. citizen and immediate past chairman of the board of the
YMCA of Greater Miami.
But another arm of Odebrecht is a prominent player in Cuba. On a visit
to the island in late January, Brazil's leftist president, Dilma
Rousseff, touted Odebrecht's plan to help revitalize sugar production there.
Odebrecht's success in Miami includes taking part in some of the
region's biggest projects. It is close to finishing the gleaming new $3
billion North Terminal at Miami International Airport and is working on
the Metromover link to MIA. Odebrecht was involved in the construction
of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, the American
Airlines Arena and the stadium at Florida International University.
Neves said his company learned of the legislation only Friday, when it
"We are a very good corporate citizen, because we care," he said of
Odebrecht USA. "My kids were raised here. This is home for us, and we'd
like to continue that legacy."
The company already faces opposition from some Miami-Dade commissioners
who have signaled they are unlikely to give the Brazilian giant more
Odebrecht has been negotiating more than a year with county aviation
officials on a deal to build the proposed Airport City, a massive,
$700-million complex including two hotels plus office and retail space
on airport grounds. The company envisions a public-private investment in
which it would build and operate the facility and pay the airport a share.
According to an economic impact study, Neves said, the project would
generate about 5,800 jobs during construction and about 10,000 jobs
afterward. "It's a major, major economic boost for Miami-Dade County,"
The plan, now under Federal Aviation Administration review, would
ultimately have to win commission approval.
Last June, when Commission Chairman Joe Martinez asked County Attorney
Robert Cuevas for options on contracts with Odebrecht, Cuevas wrote that
"state and local governments cannot generally take action'' on foreign
trade matters already subject to federal law.
Nevertheless, when aviation director Jose Abreu mentioned the Airport
City project while addressing the commission last month, Martinez told
Abreu not to waste his time, indicating the proposal would not move
forward because of the firm's ties to Cuba. In particular, Martinez
mentioned Odebrecht's sugar venture.
There is other dais opposition. Commissioner Javier Souto, a Bay of Pigs
veteran, said Tuesday that it would be "horrible" if the commission
voted for the Airport City project.
"It would be adding insult to injury," he said in an interview, adding
that the new legislation "takes care of that."
Last year, Commissioner Esteban Bovo changed his vote on a deal awarding
Odebrecht the contract to strengthen the wharves at the Port of Miami,
saying he had learned of the firm's Cuba ties after his vote.
"I don't think we should be playing the role of hypocrites and saying
one thing to our community and then doing something else as a governing
body," said Bovo, who favors the new law.
A separate part of the law restricts state investments, such as those
made for pension funds, in businesses linked to Cuba and Syria.
"Why are we going to continue to do business with them?'' Sen. Rene
Garcia, a Hialeah Republican, said of the new legislation he sponsored.
"It doesn't make sense."
Miami Herald staff writer Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report