Politics & Parties & Power

How to campaign in the new House District 25? There's always Cuba.

It used to be that challenging the Cuba embargo establishment in this town could get you spit on, fired, ostracized, bombed, or even shot. Now, in these more civilized times, it only gets you accused of being a one-issue candidate, at least in the race for Florida's new U.S. House District 25.

This district is one big anomaly, with several smaller ones inside it. Geographically it creates a strange unity between the Cubans and other Latinos in the urban sprawl of west Miami-Dade and the Anglos who inhabit the swamplands of eastern Collier County. Somehow its easternmost point wedges into the wealthy seaside enclave of Palmetto Bay in Anglo-centric South Dade; its western extreme is Naples on the Gulf Coast. Politically it is the only congressional contest in the nation in which Fidel Castro plays a pivotal role. Stranger still is that the two candidates actually differ on how the United States should deal with the planet's longest-reigning socialist dictator -- and both are Cuban Americans. One was born in Havana in 1947 and is the widow of a Bay of Pigs veteran; the other was born in Fort Lauderdale in 1961, two years after the revolution. Guess which one supports a rethinking of U.S. Cuba policy?

Earlier this month former state Rep. Annie Betancourt, the Democratic Party candidate, sent a letter to the Miami Herald articulating a widely held view about the trade embargo against the island: "The current outdated policy has only served to isolate the Cuban people and has given the Castro regime an excuse for [its] failed economic policies," she wrote. "It is time to frame a changed posture towards Cuba, one that doesn't pander to the Cuban regime but likewise doesn't punish the Cuban people. It is time to put an end to the tired and fruitless formulas that have helped perpetuate the power of a tyrant." The 55-year-old Miami-Dade County Public Schools administrator added, "I will not be afraid to take the first steps to change this policy by considering different options and working with my colleagues in Congress to build consensus."

In a district designed for himself, Mario Diaz-Balart (left), with campaign manager Miguel Otero, exploited the anti-Castro fixation when absolutely necessary
Steve Satterwhite
In a district designed for himself, Mario Diaz-Balart (left), with campaign manager Miguel Otero, exploited the anti-Castro fixation when absolutely necessary

It was a bold move for someone running in Miami-Dade. But opinion polls show that while a diminishing majority of el exilio supports the embargo, a growing majority also considers it a failed policy. "The current policy is incoherent," Betancourt said on a sunny Monday afternoon in Margaret Pace Park, upshore from the Herald building, where she had just met with the paper's editorial board along with her rival, former state Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican. The federal government does not enforce its ban on travel to Cuba, she noted, and Cuban Americans send millions of dollars annually to relatives on the island.

Why take this stand now? "Because I've seen the changes coming," she replied with a hint of exasperation, speaking English tinged with a Miami Cuban accent. "I think I have evolved in my thinking. And I still admit that it's an oppressive regime, that he's a tyrant, and I do it with a deep respect of people who have been in jail.... But when it comes to the policy, first it's not being enforced. Let's revise it, that's all I'm saying."

Even if she loses, Betancourt has made history by being the county's first Cuban American in public office to publicly reject the embargo. And some of the most informed political minds of el exilio were impressed with Betancourt's stand. "I think it's a very good tactical move," opined public opinion analyst Sergio Bendixen shortly after her announcement. "But more importantly, it's a courageous move that will benefit political dialogue and political maturity for this community."

However, the guardians of those circles in which questioning the embargo is tantamount to treason swiftly denounced Betancourt. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican whose coastal District 18 stretches from Key West to Surfside, branded her pro-Castro. "There is certainly money to be made in holding these positions in favor of Castro," Ros-Lehtinen told the Herald, suggesting that Betancourt's announcement was a ploy to attract campaign contributions from companies eager to do business in Cuba.

Back at Pace Park, a dog pulling its male master rushed toward the table where Betancourt was seated. "Hi dog!" she shouted, then addressed the man: "It's a beautiful afternoon!" This is the friendly Annie, the one who is a mediocre orator but has a warm, relaxed style that allows her to connect easily with people one-on-one. That's something she'll have to do with a huge number of District 25 voters to pull within even ten points of her opponent, let alone catch him. And she'll need money. As of a week before the November 5 election, Diaz-Balart had raised about $800,000, thanks to a long list of generous organizations ranging from the sugar, tobacco, and alcoholic beverages industries to the National Rifle Association. Betancourt, in contrast, had raised about $115,000. Her top corporate contributor was Caribe Homes, a Miami-Dade construction company owned by a group of her cousins.

Diaz-Balart was enjoying other advantages. A partner at the GDB + Partners public relations firm, the 41-year-old Diaz-Balart is gregarious and loquacious, with fourteen years of experience in the state legislature. And he's a member of one of Miami-Dade's most well-known political families. He also chaired the Republican-majority Florida House committee that drew the District 25 map, in effect helping carve out a seat for himself. According to voter registration data, 43 percent are Republican, 35 percent Democrat, and 21 percent are independent or belong to other parties.

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