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Embargo foes' 2008 strategy to focus on unseating Florida's Díaz-Balart brothers
CubaNews / January 2008

By Larry Luxner By Larry Luxner

Opponents of Washington’s current Cuba policy are counting on two Democrats — Raúl Martínez and Joe García — to defeat Florida Republican lawmakers Lincoln and Mario Díaz-Balart come November 2008, as a first step in lifting the travel ban.

Neither Martínez, the ex-mayor of Hialeah, or García, former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, have declared their candidacies. But if they announce by late January as expected, then Martínez, 57, will run against Lincoln Díaz-Balart in Florida’s 21st Con-gressional District, while García, 44, will take on Lincoln’s younger brother Mario, in District 25.

“For the first time, we’re going to have two very viable candidates running against Lincoln and Mario,” said Alvaro Fernández, president of the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights and a strident opponent of the Bush administration (see our exclusive profile of Fernández on page 8 of this issue).

“Our strategy is focused on those congressional races,” Fernández told CubaNews. “As important as Washington, D.C., is, if we want real change, it has to come from South Florida. Once we knock off one or both of these guys, things will start changing.”

A third Cuban-American incumbent, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), is currently unopposed in District 18 — though Fernández said “right now, there’s a search for somebody to run against her. Trust me, all three will be challenged.”

Martínez couldn’t be reached for comment for this article, though García said recent poll numbers suggest the Díaz-Balart brothers are “simply out of touch” with most of their constituents.

“They may be banking on older Cuban-Americans who feel that the status quo is the best way to go,” García told CubaNews, “but the overwhelming majority of Cuban-Americans disagree with the current state of affairs. I don’t think elections should be run from polls, but common sense dictates that they’re on the wrong path.”

Political insiders meeting at a recent strategy session in Washington say Martínez and García will need to raise at least $1.5 million to run a successful campaign.

“The ability to raise money isn’t something that troubles me greatly,” said Garciá. “It’s going to require a great deal of money to run for a congressional seat. I assume that people of conscience will want to make a difference.”

Miami attorney Tony Zamora, director of the Foundation for the Normalization of US-Cuba Relations, conceded that “Ileana is a much tougher person to defeat than the other two,” though he insists the Díaz-Balart brothers are certainly beatable.

“We’re going to do battle in Miami,” he declared. “This embargo thing started in South Florida, and we’re going to end it in South Florida. I’m extremely confident that not only is there an energized Democratic Party, but also a very strong change in the community. I’ve lived here for 40 years, I was the CANF’s general counsel and I know the politics of Miami very well. And I find total unity, which is very surprising to me.”

Asked why he’s so confident Lincoln and Mario will be unseated, Zamora responded that the Cuba issue ranks fourth or fifth in South Florida polls after Iraq, the economy, hurricanes and rising property insurance.

“There’s been a major shift in the mentality of the exile community, and Cuba’s not going to be a big issue,” he said. “The right in Miami cannot put 500 people together in one place, with all of their money and radio stations. At their last meeting at the Artimes Theater, after three weeks of publicity, they got only 400 people.

“But when Obama was there talking about family travel, there were 2,000 people in the auditorium, and only 17 from the Vigilia Mambisa [a hardline exile group opposed to lifting any aspect of the embargo].”

Ricardo Gonzales of Wisconsin’s Madison-Camagüey Sister Cities Association noted that Raúl Martínez would be a “formidable candidate” because the district Lincoln Díaz-Balart represents now includes a lot more of Hialeah, where Martínez was mayor and still enjoys a great deal of popularity.

“So Hialeah, even though it’s still full of Cuban exiles, has more recent arrivals, working-class Cubans, and the issue of family travel is stronger there,” said Gonzales. “Historically, Democrats and Republicans in Florida have both supported the embargo. It remains to be seen whether they’ll give into the pressure to support the status quo, much like Hillary is doing.”

Added Fernández: “The Díaz-Balarts are one-issue representatives, and a lot of people in Miami realize that. Secondly, it’s not the best of years to run as an incumbent for Congress, especially if you’re a Republican.”

He noted that Martínez, who served as mayor of Hialeah for 20 years, has never lost an election. Furthermore, Hialeah — with 226,000 people — ranks as Florida’s 5th-largest city; more than 80% of its population consists of Cuban exiles and their families.

Yet Martínez and García are far from perfect candidates. While mayor, the Cuban-born Martínez was indicted on racketeering and corruption charges. García, who has never held an elected office, also has never been to Cuba — despite his passion for the island.

García, profiled extensively in the October 2003 issue of CubaNews, was born in Miami Beach’s Mount Sinai Hospital (“that accounts for my Jewish looks,” he joked) only two years after his family emigrated from Cuba. One of his grandfathers was a bus driver on the old Route 7 between Havana and the town of El Cotorro, now a suburb of the capital.

At the University of Miami, García was elected president of student government, and after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science and public affairs in 1987, he got involved with the CANF’s Cuban Exodus Relief Fund, which brought Cubans from third countries to U.S. shores as refugees.

García went on to earn a law degree in 1991 from UM, and then spent seven years on the Florida Public Service Commission, eventually becoming the most prominent Hispanic in Florida government, and the first Hispanic ever to be named chairman of the PSC.

During his tenure there, García devoted his time to everything from electric rate hikes to controversial area-code splits.

He later went on to chair the 2004 John Kerry presidential campaign in Florida, and is now director of the NDN Hispanic Strategy Center, described on the website as “a leading centrist issue advocacy organization which is paving the way for Democrats to communicate more effectively with Latinos across the country.”

García says his priorities as a member of Congress would be ending the war in Iraq, improving health-care coverage for children, increasing the minimum wage, enacting strong ethics rules in Congress and bringing back unrestricted family travel to Cuba.

Although many of García’s potential backers in the Democratic Party — such as Alvaro Fernández and Tony Zamora — want to end the embargo altogether, García has never advocated that position himself. But he does say the current U.S. policy on Cuba isn’t working.

“It only promotes the status quo, and the status quo provides a great opportunity for politicians to give rhetorical speeches with no real action,” García told CubaNews. “Radio and TV Martí are a disaster, the Cuban humanitarian assistance program has become nothing more than glorified political patronage, and this administration — which has talked more about Cuba than any administration in U.S. history — has achieved absolutely nothing.”

Garciá said it has, however, managed to ex-port $2 billion worth of food commodities to Cuba, “and if that’s the measure of success, then the Díaz-Balart brothers have achieved success beyond imagination.”

They also have a solid network of contributors behind them. Since its formation in 2003, the US-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee has raised nearly $1.8 million for candidates opposed to lifting the embargo; it gave more than $320,000 to select lawmakers in the first half of 2007 alone (see CubaNews, November 2007, page 4).

“We are raising money too,” said Fernández, “but we have nothing compared to that, and it makes a big difference. That’s why, among other reasons, all these Democrats [in Congress] are voting with the Republicans when it comes to Cuba issues.”

Al Fox, an unsuccessful 2006 candidate for Florida’s 11th Congressional District, said that in this game, only money really talks.

“After attending 10,000-plus meetings over an eight-year period in Washington, I told myself there was only one thing I hadn’t done: run for Congress. So I moved to Tampa, raised $370,000 and came in third in a five-person race,” he said.

Fox added that “if we had a PAC with $500,000, this thing would be over in a year. Not that you’re going to bribe anybody, but what money shows is that you’re serious and passionate about your issue. The best example is the late Jorge Mas Canosa. He was an expert at giving money away. So we should borrow a page from Mas Canosa.”

García, who worked for Mas Canosa for years, hopes he’ll fare better than Fox did.

“I certainly wouldn’t be running if I hadn’t received a lot of encouragement from Democratic Party people asking me to consider doing this.”

Gonzales, who for years was president of the Cuban Committee for Democracy, said regardless of who wins in 2008, like-minded people must organize a PAC for the normalization of US-Cuba relations.

“It’s time to create an umbrella PAC that will be funded by all of these groups and have a minimum participation fee, due and a full-time lobbyist here in Washington who will eat and sleep in the halls of Congress every single day, meeting with lawmakers and advancing the cause of normalization,” he said, “not because it’s right for the Cuban people, but because it’s right for the American people.

“And if a particular member of Congress needs a contribution to come over to our side, well, that’s how this game is played. We have to learn from what the other side has done. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

The Cuban-born Gonzales suggests activists who want to see the travel ban lifted soon develop a two-track strategy.

“Track One is to defeat one or both of the Díaz-Balarts, because the defeat of one of those guys would be a shock wave and open up doors, and send a message to other members of Congress that the stranglehold the right wing has had in Miami for years is over.

“But we also have to follow Track Two: or-ganize a PAC to hit the ground running when the new administration comes in. It’s time we get smart and do what we need to do.”

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