Cuba Libre?

Democrats are challenging Republican incumbents in three "Cuban" congressional districts in South Florida. Could the campaigns foreshadow a shift in presidential politics or Cuba policy?
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It was late January, just eight days before the Florida primary, and a crowd of supporters, a dozen TV crews, and a gaggle of journalists had jammed into a small dining room at the Versailles Restaurant in the Little Havana section of Miami. "I am proud to have sat on the flight deck of a United States Navy aircraft carrier during the Cuban Missile Crisis," John McCain, the 71-year-old Arizona senator, declaimed from an old faux-wood podium. "I'm proud to have fought for and defended freedom of the people of Cuba, consistently calling for continuing the embargo until there's free elections, human right (sic) organizations and a free and independent country. Then and only then — and only then — will the United States of America extend aid and assistance, because we don't want American tax dollars to go to a corrupt government headed by either Fidel or Raúl Castro or anyone else who's denied freedom of the Cuban people."

Standing behind McCain as he spoke were Miami's three Cuban-American members of Congress: Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Ros-Lehtinen has held office since 1989, Lincoln Diaz-Balart since 1993 and, after a new district was created, his brother Mario since 2003. All are Republicans and staunch backers of maintaining the U.S. trade embargo and travel ban against Cuba.

Republican strategists consider Florida's 500,000 or so Cuban-American voters (about 80 percent of whom are registered as Republicans) a crucial part of the calculus for winning presidential elections in the state, solidly Republican until Bill Clinton's win by 300,000 votes in 1996. George W. Bush's margins of victory in Florida in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections were 537 and 381,000 votes, respectively. About 72 percent of Cuban Americans who voted in Florida — roughly 300,000 — voted for Bush in 2004, according to a post-election analysis by Bendixen & Associates.

McCain's pro-embargo pledge wasn't his only Cuba-related campaign offering in Little Havana. He wants to spend more on Cuba democracy assistance and Radio and TV Martí and maintain an open door for Cuban émigrés, positions long supported by the hard-line anti-Castro community. In a question-and-answer period, he was asked where he stood on the wet foot/dry foot policy, which grants immediate amnesty to illegal Cuban immigrants once they touch U.S. soil, a privilege no other nationality enjoys. "I rely to a large degree on my three friends here who are members of Congress," McCain said. "Their advice to me is that this policy is not a good one, but there's none better.

"And I will continue to rely on them for their advice and counsel."

A week later, McCain won the Florida primary by five percentage points, taking slightly more than half of the Cuban-American vote. Were this like previous presidential election years, that might have been the end of the Cuba talk for a good long while, except for a few campaign appearances closer to the general election to ensure a good Cuban-American (i.e., Republican) turnout.

But this year promises to be different. Three Cuban-American Republican members of Congress — incumbent stalwarts of a crucial GOP electoral stronghold in this swing state — have strong Democratic challengers. Those challengers — two Cuban Americans and a Colombian American — appear to have at least remote chances of winning.

The trifecta of congressional contests and Fidel Castro's recent resignation will likely bring the United States' controversial 47-year-old Cuba embargo under more scrutiny than usual. They will also bring a largely unacknowledged reality into public view: The extreme perspectives that once characterized the Cuban émigré community of South Florida — and that all but forced presidential candidates of both parties, eager to win Florida's electoral votes, to swear allegiance to the continued isolation of Cuba — are changing. Older émigrés still by and large fiercely advocate for the trade embargo and travel ban, but newer arrivals from Cuba have less hard-line views on relations with the island.

Will Democratic challengers in the three "Cuban" congressional districts of South Florida loosen the stranglehold that old-line anti-Castroism has had on presidential politics and Cuba policy? That's a question that can be answered only in the byzantine maze of Little Havana politics.

The three Cuban-American congressional incumbents from South Florida sit in what have been considered safe Republican seats. Only one of the districts includes the geographical section of Miami known as Little Havana, but over the decades Little Havana politics have, along with the Cuban exile population, spilled into all three. The incumbents in those districts have won recent elections by large margins, in part by remaining relentlessly hard-line when it comes to Cuba policy.

A recent focus: the humanitarian waiver that had permitted frequent family visits and virtually unlimited cash remittances to Cuba. With the three Cuban-American members of Congress pushing to tighten the policy, President Bush issued an executive order in June 2004 prohibiting U.S. residents and citizens from visiting relatives in Cuba more than once every three years. Monetary remittances were reduced to just $300 every three months, and such basics as seeds, clothing, soap, toothpaste and fishing equipment were added to the list of items the Commerce Department forbids U.S. citizens and residents from giving to anyone in Cuba.

In recent years, the Diaz-Balarts and Ros-Lehtinen have also worked hard to ensure that millions of federal taxpayer dollars flow to Miami each year. Some $33 million of the total outlay of almost $80 million pays for Radio and TV Martí, which beam anti-Castro shows into Cuba despite evidence that few people on the island tune in. The rest is known as Cuba democracy assistance, which the State Department and the Agency for International Development channel to private groups, mostly based in Miami, that purport to help dissidents in Cuba. Reports by government inspectors in 2006 and 2007 found the programs rife with inappropriate record keeping, questionable expenditures, cronyism and possible fraud.

Just the same, last June, Lincoln Diaz-Balart introduced a measure to more than triple annual spending on Cuba democracy assistance, raising it to nearly $46 million. The House voted 254-170 in favor of the increase, and it became part of an appropriations bill President Bush signed in December.

For the first time in decades, however, at least some Democrats seem ready to shake up the political calculus of Cuban Miami. The day after McCain's appearance in South Florida, Raul Martinez, a tall, 59-year-old, sometimes-irascible Cuban-American Democrat, announced he was running against Lincoln Diaz-Balart, 53, in Florida's 21st Congressional District. A real estate developer and former mayor of Hialeah, Fla., Martinez sounded predictable Democratic themes: He criticized President Bush and his fellow Republicans for the poor state of the economy, mortgage foreclosures, rising health care costs and the war in Iraq.

But he also made clear that Cuba policy would be an issue, particularly the harsh restrictions on family visits and remittances that his opponent had fought hard to impose. "I think family values should be extended also to those people that are living inside the island," Martinez declared to a crowd of about 200 gathered outside Hialeah City Hall. "I believe that we should encourage, not discourage, family reunification. I believe that for those individuals that get to travel to Cuba and visit and help those inside, that's going to bring change in Cuba."

Criticizing the restrictions on travel and remittances is nothing new in Miami. People with relatives in Cuba and owners of now-defunct freight-forwarding and travel agencies specializing in Cuba have clamored about the sanctions. But Martinez also took aim at something few in Miami — or Washington, D.C. — have dared attack out loud: the Cuba democracy funding that the Diaz-Balart brothers have dedicated themselves to expanding.

"First and foremost, I want accountability," the ex-mayor demanded. "I want to make sure that the federal funds that are being sent or supposed to be sent to Cuba to help the dissidents — I want to make sure that those funds are going into the island and not staying in Miami paying for rents of offices, paying for leased cars and paying for salaries."

Two weeks later, Lincoln Diaz-Balart's younger brother Mario, 46, also had a Cuban-American challenger: Joe Garcia, the 44-year-old director of the New Democratic Network's Hispanic Strategy Center and a local Democratic Party activist. Garcia has had a tempestuous history with the Diaz-Balarts and the establishment of wealthy embargo supporters that surrounds them. This history, if nothing else, illustrates the rancor beneath the surface of émigré politics.

In 2003, as executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, Garcia and the group's chairman, Jorge Mas Santos, engineered a major policy shift for the influential lobbying group, founded by Mas' father, Jorge Mas Canosa. A majority of the foundation's board voted to continue its pro-embargo stance but said the organization would now advocate for talks with Cuban officials as a way to bring reconciliation with and eventually democratic reform to Cuba. The Havana government ridiculed the idea. Two dozen CANF board members — for whom talking with Cuban officials is tantamount to treason — angrily walked out. They started a new group, the Cuban Liberty Council.

Some of the defectors sought out like-minded, wealthy Cuban-American entrepreneurs in Miami and set up a new fundraising network, the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee. Its mission: to thwart efforts in Congress to loosen the embargo or otherwise shift Cuba policy from confrontation to reconciliation. Since 2004, the PAC has spent $2.3 million on those efforts, making campaign contributions to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

Now the PAC's nemesis was running for Mario Diaz-Balart's District 25 seat. In a short speech announcing his candidacy, Garcia didn't even mention Cuba policy, a reflection of polling data showing that Cuban Americans are more concerned about other issues in 2008.

Still, Cuba will always be a political issue in South Florida, and when it comes to Cuba, Garcia also takes the new line of the Democratic challengers: pro-embargo but against restrictions on family visits and remittances to Cuba. "It's about my grandmother being able to visit with her kids in Cuba, cousins being able to visit with cousins in Cuba, aunts and uncles. The reality is that if there is any hope for the Cuban tragedy, it is not based on U.S. foreign policy. It is not based on harsh words from Calle Ocho," he said, referring to Eighth Street, a Little Havana thoroughfare that passes by the Versailles Restaurant. "It's based on people who have the strength and character to stand up and have their voice heard in Havana."

A week later, Ros-Lehtinen, the third Republican incumbent, also had a new Democratic foe, Annette Taddeo, a 40-year-old Colombia-born businesswoman who founded a large translation and interpretation company. Echoing Garcia and Martinez, Taddeo criticized Ros-Lehtinen's support for the war in Iraq and her lack of leadership on environmental protection and economic issues, such as reducing the exorbitant cost of property insurance in hurricane-prone Florida.

Taddeo also espoused the new Democratic Cuba policy. "I don't think the embargo should be lifted; however, I don't think that families should be separated and be told that they can only see each other every three years and that if a family member is ill or died they can't go," Taddeo said. "That is against my family values."

A new political day dawned in Little Havana. Even so, it's a day likely to include some familiar Little Havana atmospherics.

Bellicose overtones sounded quickly in the South Florida congressional campaigns, which are absolutely fraught with longstanding emotional rivalries.

Lincoln Diaz-Balart went negative immediately, calling Martinez vulgar and corrupt, the latter epithet referring to the 1990 federal indictment accusing Martinez of accepting $182,000 in bribes from land developers while he was mayor. A jury convicted him, but an appeals court overturned the verdict and ordered a new trial, which ended in a hung jury. Prosecutors dropped the case. Adding to the intrigue: The U.S. attorney who sought the Martinez indictment was Dexter Lehtinen, husband to Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Martinez, meanwhile, said raising the failed indictment would only work against Ros-Lehtinen's re-election and called Diaz-Balart a "useless 15-year-old congressman. I would hope that he would get out of the gutter (rather) than try to get me into the gutter," Martinez said.

In April, Mario Diaz-Balart issued a statement that referred to Garcia and the House Committee on Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., as "leftist extremists." Apparently prompted by word that Rangel would appear as a special guest at a Garcia fundraiser in New York City, the statement said Garcia has "a long and well-known history of supporting a radical left-wing agenda, including supporting higher taxes on working families and appeasing our nation's enemies. Left-wing birds of a feather tax and spend together."

Garcia countered, accusing Diaz-Balart of engaging in "ridiculous red-baiting" and then sending out an e-mail fundraising blast: "We always knew that the better this campaign does — the more supporters we attract, the more events we hold, and the more small donors who give — the more negative and desperate Mario Diaz-Balart would get. We just never thought he would sink this low, this early."

In the decades since Castro came to power, pro-embargo hard-liners have used a kind of heresy argument to squelch dissent within the exile community. In the 1970s and '80s, the argument was sometimes backed by deadly violence against those supporting a less confrontational approach to Cuba. Now, the argument is more of a rhetorical flourish, centering on the word unity.

"One of the fundamental strengths of our community has always been unity, and that unity has always been at the core of the economic and political success of Cuban Americans," says Mauricio Claver-Carone, the 32-year-old spokesman of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC. "So when your campaign is based on a strategy of ‘divide and conquer,' I personally (don't believe), and our committee personally doesn't believe, that that is particularly helpful, because basically what you're doing is you're showing the world a disunified community."

But Cuban Americans are divided on Cuba policy, according to opinion polls taken over the past eight years. "It is clear that there are substantial numbers of people that don't agree with the confrontation strategy," says Sergio Bendixen, a Miami-based De-mocratic pollster who specializes in Hispanic electoral politics. One of his consistent findings is that a majority of Cubans who migrated to the U.S. before 1980 support the embargo and travel ban, while those who arrived later tend to oppose them. The latter group has voted in far fewer numbers than the first group, in part because many of the more recent arrivals are not U.S. citizens.

Meanwhile, Bendixen and other Democratic consultants specializing in Cuban-American politics note that anxiety about the economy, health insurance costs and the war in Iraq have eclipsed Cuba in the minds of most Cuban-American voters. So three electoral contests that could determine the future of Cuba policy will likely hinge on matters other than Cuba (although travel restrictions and the democracy-assistance pork barrel may function as wedge issues).

"I think it's an indicator that change is coming to — no, is in - Miami," Rudy de la Garza, a political scientist at Columbia University, says. "The fact that a Colombian is running is illustrative of the fact that Cubans are no longer the majority; they're the plurality. And the fact that Democrats are running — they're not fools; obviously, they know the decks are stacked against them — tells us that there is a place for a new kind of Latino politics in Miami.

"Now, whether they can win, that's another question. But they're opening space."

Any political space that Martinez, Garcia and Taddeo have opened is still very tightly cordoned. In each of the districts they are contesting, roughly half the electorate is Cuban-American. About 40 percent of registered voters in each district are Republican, compared with about 30 percent Democrat. While the Diaz-Balarts' margins of victory have been shrinking, they've still trounced their opponents. For example, Lincoln Diaz-Balart beat a Libertarian by 34 percentage points in 2004; that slipped to 19 points against a Cuban-American Democrat in 2006. Mario's 29-point win in 2002 dwindled to 17 points in his last election. In the past three elections, Ros-Lehtinen's worst outing was a 24-point win.

The GOP's blockade around federal Cuba policy is held in place not only by the Republican leanings of the three Cuban congressional districts and the peculiar clout of Florida's half-million Cuban-American voters. A highly effective campaign finance network has also worked to maintain a hard-line Cuba policy.

The network was revealed prominently in early March, when two Democratic members of Congress from South Florida, Kendrick Meek and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, told The Miami Herald they will not support Garcia, Martinez and Taddeo in their races against the Diaz-Balarts and Ros-Lehtinen. They couldn't support their fellow Democrats, Meek and Wasserman Schultz said, because of their friendships with the Republican incumbents.

Democratic Party activists were incensed, especially with Wasserman Schultz. She is co-chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's Red to Blue program, which has a stated purpose of finding districts with vulnerable Republicans and replacing them with Democrats. The Democratic activists pointed to another kinship she had with the Diaz-Balarts: the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC. In the past two election cycles, Wasserman Schultz received $22,000 from the committee, and members of the PAC's board of directors gave her another $29,000 in individual contributions, for a total of $51,000. Meek received $10,500 from the PAC.

Wasserman Schultz is hardly alone. Florida's Democratic U.S. senator, Bill Nelson, has taken campaign contributions of about $44,000 from the PAC and individuals on its board of directors. Last December, Nelson introduced to the Senate a bill designed to punish any foreigner who helps Cuba develop its offshore petroleum resources by barring him or her from the United States. He did so after a similar bill sponsored earlier in the year by Florida's other U.S. senator, Mel Martinez, a Cuban-American Republican from Orlando, stalled in a subcommittee. Ros-Lehtinen introduced a version in the House. Among her co-sponsors were the Diaz-Balarts, of course, but also three Democrats: Meek, Wasserman Schultz and Tim Mahoney, a first-term Democrat from central Florida who received $10,000 from the PAC.

Indeed, two-thirds of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC's beneficiaries are Democrats, according to its spokesman, Claver-Carone. "Frankly, since day one when this committee was created, the fundamental goal was to make Cuba policy a nonpartisan issue," he says. "Cuba policy is a foreign-policy issue; it's not a partisan issue — in the same way that, you know, U.S. policy towards Israel is not a partisan issue."

Even critics of the confrontation strategy supported by the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC admit the group has been a juggernaut for the Diaz-Balarts, Ros-Lehtinen and their extended network of wealthy donors.

"This is coming from somebody that doesn't really agree with their cause," says Bendixen, a Peruvian American who has long favored ending the embargo and initiating talks with the Cuban government. "But I have to recognize that they have been tremendously effective, and they have moved the ball forward in terms of their cause."

Common sense would dictate that anyone trying to defeat a Cuban-American Republican in the heart of Cuban-American Republicanism would need a campaign finance machine to give the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC a run for its money.

One is quietly emerging, courtesy of Jorge Mas Santos, the 44-year-old chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, as well as of MasTec, a technology consulting firm. In the past year, the Mas family has spent more than $130,000 on what would appear to be a bid to oust a Diaz-Balart or Ros-Lehtinen and elect Democrats who favor reforming Cuba policy. Mas family members have recently contributed $24,000 to Garcia's campaign and $9,200 to Martinez's. They've also sent thousands more to Florida Democrats, including Sen. Nelson and Rep. Wasserman Schultz, perhaps hoping to wean them off the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC.

There are indications that Democratic leaders in the House are committed to fighting for the three Democratic insurgents. After the Wasserman Schultz flap, Martinez, Garcia and Taddeo received letters of support signed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Majority Whip James Clyburn, Democratic Caucus Chair Rahm Emanuel and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Chris Van Hollen.

"I guess you could make the point that the battle has gone to politics," Bendixen says, "that now this upcoming election between the Diaz-Balarts and Raul Martinez and Joe Garcia is the way that this thing is going to get settled — and maybe not just over one election but over the next two or three elections."

History has shown that whether a Republican or a Democrat is in the White House, the Cuba trade embargo and travel sanctions tend only to get tighter. This year, however, at least the possibility exists that the trend line could change.

Last August, Garcia introduced Barack Obama when the Democratic presidential candidate spoke to about 1,800 people at a rally inside Miami-Dade Auditorium. "There are few better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans and the money they send to Cuba to help make their families less dependent on Castro's regime," Obama told the cheering crowd. "That's why when I'm president, I'll grant Cuban Americans unrestricted rights to visit families and send remittances to the island!" He said he would also try to open a dialogue between the U.S. and Cuban governments.

Of course, a Democratic president won't necessarily mean a different approach; the week when Obama spoke in Miami, Hillary Clinton issued a statement saying she favored current U.S. policy toward Cuba.

U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, the Orlando Republican who endorsed McCain ahead of the Florida primary, doesn't appear very concerned about the potential election of a Cuban Democrat to a Miami district. The congressional contests could spark an increase in Democratic voter turnout in South Florida, perhaps affecting the presidential result in Florida in a tight race, Martinez acknowledged, but he doesn't foresee Cuba policy becoming a major political issue.

"I just don't see the big huge divide between the congressional candidates that's going to reflect up to the presidential race," he said.

Still, recent polls show 55 percent of Cuban Americans favoring unrestricted travel to the island and 65 percent in support of U.S.-Cuba talks. And the Democratic challengers to Republican Cuban Americans don't necessarily need a political sea change to have a big political impact. The challengers' reasoning follows these lines: If just one of the three Democrats wins in November, some of the dozens of congressional Democrats voting with Cuban-American Republicans on Cuba embargo issues will begin to defect.

Even Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the longtime Republican congressman, concedes the point, and he knows this terrain as well as anyone. "The election, per se, would be a message. And we know that. And the (Cuban exile) community knows that. But 'That's not going to happen' is all I can say with regards to this kind of speculation," he told me recently during a break at a Cuba conference in Coral Gables, Fla. "It would send some messages of disagreement — a strong message of disagreement —with the policy that we're following on Cuba. I mean that's evident if one of the three, even, lost."

Later, Diego Suarez, one of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC's biggest donors, assured me: "Neither Lincoln, nor Mario nor Ileana is going to lose. The community isn't sufficiently penetrated by the left."

But just in case, the PAC will be funneling a lot of money their way in the months ahead. "Now we have another million (dollars) to put in," Suarez offered. That's about how much the three Democrats raised in the first quarter of this year.

Late in March, though, the Democratic challengers received some free media that may be as valuable as any attack ad. The White House announced that Felipe Sixto, a Cuban-American aide to President Bush, was resigning amid a Justice Department investigation. The allegations involve his supposed misspending of federal funds while working at the Center for a Free Cuba, a nonprofit that receives about $2 million per year in Cuba democracy assistance. The story of Sixto's resignation is a small one in Washington, D.C., where the center is based. How large it grows between now and November may depend on temperature settings in the political hothouse known as Little Havana.

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