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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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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a letter to the Miami Herald articulating a widely held view about the trade embargo against the island: "The current outdated policy has only served to isolate the Cuban people and has given the Castro regime an excuse for [its] failed economic policies," she wrote.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."
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 Heraldbuilding, 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 exiliowere 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.
On that afternoon Betancourt was not sure how her Cuba policy announcement would play in District 25, but she's gotten praise close to her Kendall-area home. "Well, my next-door neighbor rolled down the window this morning and she says, 'Annie, you're courageous and my daughter wants a sign in her yard.'" Also inspiring was a new poll by the Washington, D.C. firm Hamilton Beattie, which showed Diaz-Balart ahead by 50 to 39 percent, with 11 percent undecided. That was a daunting spread but better than the twenty-point lead several polls found weeks earlier. Besides, the survey contained some glimmers from which, if one were very optimistic, it was possible to imagine a close race.
The pollsters found that Republicans familiar with Betancourt had a favorable impression of her by a ratio of three to one. And 54 percent of the district's registered voters were women, which could also work to Betancourt's advantage. In addition Cuban Americans -- the main locus of pro-embargo sentiment -- composed only 31 percent of District 25 voters. Groups who are less passionate about Cuba policy constituted a majority, with non-Cuban Hispanics accounting for 20 percent, Anglos 42 percent, and blacks 6 percent.
Moreover, after "communicating messages and backgrounds" of the candidates, the poll data indicated that, incredibly, the race was a statistical dead heat: 45 percent for Diaz-Balart and 43 percent for Betancourt. "We are within striking distance," she declared.
But the poll bore some bad news too: Few people knew who she was. The survey found that Betancourt had "very low" name recognition in District 25, even among the groups most likely to back a Democrat: younger white women, African Americans, and Anglos in South Miami-Dade. If she was to catch Diaz-Balart she would need something she could not afford: a media blitz. Her opponent was already airing a commercial depicting him chatting with senior citizens about helping them with health-care costs. How could she out-communicate a well-connected public relations man who had tapped into the fundraising network that helped elect President George W. Bush?
U.S. Sen. Bob Graham was probably the best-suited Democrat to help Betancourt communicate. Despite the GOP leanings of the area that is now District 25, Graham blasted his 1998 Republican opponent Charlie Crist here 70 to 30 percent. On October 12 a group of about 50 Betancourt friends and supporters gathered amid the Saturday-morning bustle of Hooligan's sports bar on South Dixie Highway to listen to Graham and write checks to Betancourt. The candidate, a University of Miami alumna, chose the time and place for this fundraiser to tap into the pregame excitement of the Hurricanes and Seminoles' annual gridiron grudge match. (Hooligan's owner Jay Love is also a supporter.) Standing with a microphone next to a DJ's podium, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee criticized President Bush for obsessing about Iraq when the biggest threats to Americans were Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda. Then he cast Betancourt as a caring populist: "Annie is going to be my congresswoman, so when I lose my Social Security check or can't get through to the Medicare office I know who to call," he mused.Betancourt can in fact point to her experience working in elderly assistance, health care, and education. After receiving a bachelor's degree from UM in psychology in 1974, she took a job at Jackson Memorial Hospital, where she was liaison for the Hispanic community. She also brings up her public policy experience as a member of the Governing Board of the South Florida Water Management District. Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, appointed Betancourt in 1991 and she served until 1994, when voters in her Kendall-based district elected her to the Florida House.
Betancourt did not raise the Cuba issue that morning but it was still resonating. Ramon Ramos, one of Betancourt's Cuban-American supporters at the fundraiser, was critical of the many exiles who support the embargo but also travel to Cuba. "How can you be such a goddamn hypocrite?" he exclaimed. "Being a Cuban American and saying, 'No end to the embargo,' but then allowing their families to go to Cuba and take all kinds of goods there?"
Betancourt's core supporters are a loose alliance of Cuban-American and Anglo Democrats who support dismantling the embargo and promoting dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba. They include Alfredo Duran, a lawyer, Bay of Pigs veteran, and past president of the Cuban Committee for Democracy; Silvia Wilhelm, president of Puentes Cubanos (Cuban Bridges); and Eddie Levy, founder of the Cuban American Defense League and the humanitarian aid group Jewish Solidarity. Among the small number of Cuban-American and Anglo businessmen who have given money are Arthur Hertz, CEO of Wometco and long-time Democratic contributor; Antonio Prado, a Hamilton Group executive and member of Republicans for Annie; and her cousins Charlie and Emilio Martinez, owners of Caribe Homes.
The next day Graham appeared again with Betancourt in Naples, on the western edge of District 25, to help her attract voters in Collier County, where some Republican leaders were unhappy about their unification with Miami-Dade. About ten percent of the district's voters reside in Collier County.
After her primary victory against former Univision reporter Lorna Virgili, Betancourt had flown to Washington, D.C. and convinced the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which targets candidates thought to have a chance of beating Republicans, to contribute $5000. With time running out for fundraising and the anti-embargo issue in her pocket, Betancourt flew again to Washington on October 16 to make another appeal to DCCC. She met with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who along with Arizona Republican Jeff Flake co-sponsored a bill to end the ban on travel to Cuba. While in D.C. Betancourt also garnered about $3000 from a fundraiser at the home of Raquel Vallejo, another Cuban American who supports lifting the embargo. As of press time, Democratic Party leaders had helped pump about $150,000 into Betancourt's account, keeping her in the game.
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.)
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."
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.
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 Heraldquoted 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.