Politics & Parties & Power

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


Diaz-Balart maintains that Betancourt is the one who raised the Cuba policy issue, but he certainly has taken advantage of it. The topic dominated a speech he gave at a Sunday-afternoon party on October 13 at his campaign headquarters, which is located in a Bird Road strip mall in West Miami-Dade. About 200 people mingled in the parking lot around a huge paella that filled an enormous iron pan about six feet in diameter. An elderly contingent sat in about 50 folding chairs as a three-member salsa band played in the shade. Flanking Mario behind the microphone were Miami-Dade's two U.S. representatives in the anti-Castro Congressional caucus: his brother Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen. Also beside him were lawyer and state Sen. Alex Villalobos, whose West Miami-Dade district lies inside the new congressional district; and Pepe Diaz, the newly elected county commissioner. Symbolizing the importance of West Miami-Dade's burgeoning Colombian-American populace was Juan Carlos Zapata, a Republican candidate for a state house seat in the area.Above all Diaz-Balart wanted everyone to know he is a loyal supporter of President Bush, especially his plans for a pre-emptive, unilateral assault on Iraq. "We live in paradise, but we are at war," he told the crowd in Spanish. "We have to carry this war on terrorism to the end."

Diaz-Balart noted that Saddam Hussein wasn't the only terrorist on his list. Besides the Iraqi despot he named the FARC guerrillas in Colombia and the government of Cuba. Diaz-Balart vowed to represent Nicaraguans, Colombians, Guatemalans, Americans, and Cubans. "And part of that representation is not tolerating terrorism 10,000 miles away, 3000 miles away, or 90 miles away either!" he shouted, prompting cheers and applause. (The Havana government has stated repeatedly since the September 11 attacks that Cuba opposes all forms of terrorism. It has also sent the U.S. State Department a proposal for a bilateral agreement to cooperate on anti-terrorism operations.)

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

Like George W. Bush, Diaz-Balart comes across in a one-on-one encounter as a folksy guy who likes to kid around. But the Cuban American is more articulate than the Connecticut-Texan who graduated from Yale. In fact Diaz-Balart does not hold a college degree. He enrolled at the University of South Florida in Tampa in 1979 and studied political science, but dropped out after three years.

Diaz-Balart, however, was home-schooled in a political family that has majored in anti-Castro engineering for four decades. His grandfather, Rafael Diaz-Balart, was elected to the Cuban House of Representatives in 1936. Mario's father Rafael L. Diaz-Balart (whose sister Mirta was married to Castro from 1948 to 1955) belonged to dictator Fulgencio Batista's governing coalition and served as majority leader of the Cuban House from 1954 to 1958, followed by a stint in the Cuban Senate before the revolutionary army rolled into Havana on January 1, 1959. Later that month, Mario's dad organized what historians consider the first anti-Castro guerrilla group, La Rosa Blanca (The White Rose). The organization carried out several actions but failed to attract enough supporters to undermine what was still a popular revolution. Today the Cuban government includes La Rosa Blanca on its historical list of counterrevolutionary terrorist organizations.

Then there's Mario's older brother Lincoln, who has maintained at least the spirit of Papa Diaz-Balart's fight. In 1985, for example, he publicly supported Orlando Bosch, the anti-Castro terrorist whom exile leaders celebrated as a hero upon his return to Miami from a Venezuela prison. The Cuban government still accuses him of planning the bombing of a Cubana de Aviación jetliner in 1976, killing 73 people. Bosch denies involvement but last year told New Times none of the victims were innocent.

Mario is following in the footsteps of Lincoln, who after six years in the Florida legislature was elected to serve U.S. House District 21 in 1992. Throughout the Eighties Mario had gained valuable political experience campaigning -- but not for Republicans, for Democrats. In 1982 he became South Florida coordinator for former Florida governor (and Carter administration trade representative) Reubin Askew's unsuccessful bid for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination. Also in 1984 Mario was manager for the re-election campaign of state Rep. Art Simon, another Democrat. But Mario was a Republican by 1988 when he was elected to Javier Souto's old Florida House seat in a district where a Democrat dared not compete. In 1992 he became a state senator; he returned to the House in 2000.

The closing flourish of his strip-mall speech might well have perplexed Collier County Anglos, but was a surefire crowd-pleaser among elderly Cuban Americans with a nostalgia for the pre-Castro years. It was an adage by General Mario Menocal, who seized power in Cuba in 1930 and was friends with Diaz-Balart's grandfather and great-uncle. "General Menocal had a love of loyalty and friendship. And friendship and loyalty is something my family always tries to maintain," Diaz-Balart declared. "Menocal had a saying that I learned as a child. He said, 'For my enemies, justice. For my friends, everything.'" The crowd cheered, then turned its attention to the giant paella as the salsa band kicked in.

For many at the party, including 66-year-old Francisco Espino, to be Cuban is to support the embargo. That is the main reason he and his wife Marilyn del Toro, who moved to Miami-Dade from New Jersey two years ago, are supporting Diaz-Balart over Betancourt. "She is also Cuban, but she is against what we Cubans feel," he explained. Espino, an affable retired supermarket worker, also suspects that Betancourt's campaign is being managed from Cuba. He believes powerful groups have kept Americans ignorant of the repression in Castro's Cuba. "There is a Left that is very deep in the universities and in the press [in the United States]," he added. "This country has problems because there is a very strong Leftist consciousness in this country."

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