Politics & Parties & Power

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

Others offered less conspiratorial motives for preferring Diaz-Balart. "Annie's a good girl but she hasn't got one law approved," offered Alfred Caballero, a retired Florida International University chemistry professor. Caballero, who thinks Fidel Castro is "a maniac," noted that Diaz-Balart sponsored a bill in 2000 that appropriated $2.5 million for a new FIU law school. As a sign of his effectiveness, perhaps, the legislature voted to name the structure the Rafael Diaz-Balart Building.

When the candidate himself comes over to mingle he wants to make sure New Times knows that Marilyn Adamo is present. A 1996 stalking case involving Adamo's daughter Jennifer prompted Diaz-Balart and Villalobos to sponsor a bill making stalking of minors a crime. It became law. "The bottom line is it's fourteen years of effectiveness, of working for this entire community, of not being pigeonholed in any single issue," Diaz-Balart concluded. "Unfortunately Annie has become a single-issue candidate." Just don't let Betancourt know that.

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

The U.S. embargo against Cuba is the single issue that can reduce an otherwise even-tempered, somewhat eloquent Republican into an irrational ideologue. One incident in 2000 involved Diaz-Balart's compulsion to blame former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala for the INS operation that sent Elian Gonzalez back to his father. The Miami Herald quoted Diaz-Balart telling a UM board member that the hiring of Shalala as the university's president was "offensive'' because she was part of an administration "that put a gun to a six-year-old's head." Diaz-Balart also said Shalala's presence could jeopardize the tens of millions of dollars in state funding UM receives annually. The Cuba issue has threatened to knock him off kilter again in the District 25 campaign. During an October 20 appearance on Michael Putney's This Week in South Florida, Diaz-Balart managed to elevate Cuba to the same pariah status as Iraq and implied that Castro was in league with Islamic terrorists. "There are only two nations that are not assisting the United States' efforts in the war on terrorism," Diaz-Balart declared, with Betancourt seated next to him. "One of those that is not assisting, obviously, is Iraq. The other is Castro's Cuba.... I don't think this is the time to be either sending credits, tourism dollars, or any sort of assistance to one of two nations in the entire world that is not only not assisting us in our war against terrorism but that has gone out of its way to help the terrorists."

Diaz-Balart was referring to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fisk's charge last month that Cuban agents had intentionally provided "false leads" regarding possible terrorist plots. A senior U.S. intelligence official told the Miami Herald, however, the Bush administration had "raised the bar" on what would constitute "real cooperation" so that the Castro government could not cooperate. The official also noted that after the September 11 attacks the State Department was reluctant to receive counterterrorism information from Cuba in order to avoid the appearance it was cooperating with Castro.

Incredibly, Diaz-Balart again asserted that the only plank in Betancourt's platform was U.S. policy toward Cuba. "She's made this a one-issue campaign. This is the only issue she's been talking about," he told Putney. Betancourt looked on in disbelief. She told Putney she thinks the trend toward a new Cuba policy is "irreversible" and noted that "even the Republican administration has allowed [people to attend] a trade show [in Cuba]." It was "hypocrisy" for the United States to maintain an embargo while allowing Cuban Americans to send millions of dollars to Cuba. Putney then guided them into a discussion of health-care costs, which each candidate agreed it was necessary to cut, especially for the elderly.

Whatever happens in District 25, Betancourt has carved out a new political space in Miami-Dade. "I think what's now interesting about this race ... is that for the first time in Cuban-American Miami politics we've seen a civilized democratic debate on Cuba policy between two fairly intelligent candidates," analyst Bendixen notes. "I think that's the first time we've seen that in Miami in more than four decades. That makes it a positive development no matter how you look at it, no matter whose side you're on."

Betancourt may be swimming with the gradually rising tide favoring ending the embargo, especially the travel ban. But in Miami-Dade, and District 25, a majority of Cuban Americans still support the embargo even though they also believe that it is a failure. "How do we deal with a public policy issue and separate the emotional from the rational?" Betancourt asks. She admits she doesn't know the answer.

Ironically, if Diaz-Balart wins next Tuesday he will join the other U.S. representatives from Miami-Dade going against that rising tide. And while he maintains that it was Betancourt who made U.S. policy toward Cuba an issue in the District 25 race, it is precisely his hard line on the embargo that will have helped get him elected.

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