By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
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By Sabrina Rodriguez
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By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
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Circus music sounds as a camera cuts to a short clip of a well-known, fuming, bearded comandante. Standing at a podium, he wears a drab military uniform and madly gesticulates with his left hand. Red letters flash: Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
Next comes an equally terse clip of a handsome fortyish man with thinning black hair and a dark suit, his face contorted in anger. He makes exactly the same gestures with the same hand. More red letters: U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.
A third face appears. More irate gestures. Another menacing scowl. In red: U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
The loop repeats. Then comes the kicker: This November ... lets end the family circus. Vote against Fidels nephews.
In less than two weeks, a South Florida political dynasty will almost certainly disappear. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, fierce anti-Communists who are indeed Castros nephews by a failed first marriage, will likely lose victims of the anti-Republican discontent sweeping America. They are scions of a family that has dominated politics in both Havana and Washington for more than a half-century.
Until now, the Diaz-Balarts have skated through elections. But two Democratic challengers seem to have their number. Former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez and onetime Cuban American National Foundation chief Joe Garcia have raised more than $2 million. Recently released polls by Telemundo 51 and the Rothenberg Report show the Republican siblings trailing the Dems or locked in a dead heat. The November 4 election will tip their way if Obama voters show in force, which is likely.
That result will forever alter U.S. policy toward Cuba. And it might signal a shift of the Republican partys staunchest South Florida allies Cuban-Americans.
Ironically, though all four candidates have roots on the island, the race will be largely decided by ballots of other Hispanics, who now outnumber Cuban voters in the state. "The biggest factor in this race," opines Dario Moreno, executive director of the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University, a local political think tank, "is the non-Cuban Hispanics who are not necessarily loyal to the GOP."
Ashen rain clouds darken the sky over the Miami Springs Country Club on Curtiss Parkway. A monsoon-like downpour pelts the golf course. But the dreary weather doesn't dampen the mood inside the swanky clubhouse's ballroom, where 75 guests have gathered to hear the jowly, heavy-set, and towering Raul Martinez deliver a pugnacious stump speech. It's about 10 minutes before the candidate takes the podium, and an invitee named Andres Nazario, a slim fellow with a bushy mustache, stands near the wooden bar, where two bartenders are handing out free booze.
The 46-year-old is a rarity in these parts. He is a Cuban-American Democrat. "Cuba is an insignificant issue in this election," he says. "What is important is the economy and getting out of Iraq."
Nazario represents a shift in South Florida's political landscape. Democrats began losing Cuban-Americans after the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy didn't supply promised air support and the effort failed. Ronald Reagan sealed the demographic for the Republicans after his 1980 election.
Last month, the Cuban Affairs Journal — a scholarly rag published by a University of Miami think tank — found that Cuban-American voters overwhelmingly identify as Republicans, but the community's views on social issues diverge from the party's. The report concludes that once the Communist regime comes to an end on the island, the exiles' Republican identity might melt away.
The two districts ruled by the Diaz-Balarts have traditionally been the most Cuban-American in the nation. Lincoln's area runs from South Broward to South Miami-Dade and includes Miramar, Hialeah, Miami Lakes, and parts of Kendall. Mario's district encompasses Perrine, Cutler Bay, Goulds, Homestead, and Florida City, as well as small parts of Monroe and Collier counties.
Two years ago, registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats 218,000 to 166,000 in Miami-Dade, which makes up the bulk of both districts. Today Dems have narrowed the gap, trailing the Republicans' 227,000 registered voters by only 28,000 (as of September 5). In Mario's district, 13,000 Democrats have registered since this past summer.
Meanwhile, Republican registration is down in both districts. "The Democrats have mounted a very aggressive campaign to register new voters," the Metropolitan Center's Moreno says.
Then there's the question of so-called Republican Party fatigue. Younger generations of Cuban-Americans are less likely to follow the hard-line exile politics of their parents. According to a poll released earlier this year by the Foundation for Normalization of U.S.-Cuba Relations, 48 percent of surveyed registered voters in the Diaz-Balarts' districts are "more likely'' to vote for a presidential candidate who would allow Cuban-Americans to travel freely to the island, while 36 percent stated they would be less likely to support such a person.
The Diaz-Balarts support the travel restrictions. Their challengers are in favor of easing them.
With regard to money, the races are close. Lincoln has raised $1.6 million to Martinez's $1.3 million, while Mario has collected $1.2 million to Garcia's $1 million, according to reports filed this past August 6, the most recent available.
The parties are also pumping millions of dollars into the districts, and third-party political groups, known as 527s, are playing a prominent role. One group, called the Patriot Majority, has distributed six mailers assailing Lincoln for repeatedly voting in favor of congressional pay raises. One of them shows the older Diaz-Balart's profile next to five stacks of hundred-dollar bills. "We count on our congressman to protect the American dream," it says. "Lincoln Diaz-Balart has continually voted to use our tax dollars to raise his own salary."