End of the Diaz-Balart Dynasty

The Republican brothers are headed for defeat, and Cuban-American politics will change forever.

The Republican Party of Florida has responded with a newsletter called Ultima Noticia, chock full of spooky Cold War intrigue. It cites Martinez contributors who legally set up trips to Cuba: "The Cuban tyranny and its associates, collaborators, and defenders in the United States have concluded the only way to end the embargo ... is to remove Lincoln Diaz-Balart and replace him with Raul Martinez, who supports multimillion-dollar unilateral concessions for the Cuban tyranny."

It's October 4, and Lincoln Diaz-Balart is holding court inside a storefront campaign office in a Hialeah shopping center on West 12th Avenue. Nineteen Nicaraguans and Hondurans are here to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Congress's passage of a law that granted legal residency to thousands of Central Americans.

The visitors are seated in a small conference room with a large blue vinyl campaign sign hanging on one wall and the American and Nicaraguan flags draped on another. Lincoln, dressed in a tan checkered short-sleeve button-down shirt, black slacks, and black loafers, stands in front. Next to him is Cristóbal Mendoza, a Nicaraguan with a balding pate and wisps of gray hair, who announces his community's support for Lincoln's re-election. "We are here to tell you that you have our vote," Mendoza declares. "Lincoln, you are going to win."

Ex-Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez
Jacqueline Carini
Ex-Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez
Former Cuban American National Foundation chief Joe Garcia
Jacqueline Carini
Former Cuban American National Foundation chief Joe Garcia

The smiling candidate begins his speech. "In the next 30 days, we are going to see a never-ending series of insults and attacks," he says. "But being here, seeing Nicaraguans with their naturalization certificates, is worth all the attacks my opponent is going to throw against me."

The crowd shouts, "¡Que viva Lincoln!"

"I have a strong base of support among non-Cuban Hispanics," Lincoln comments shortly after concluding his presentation. "You're seeing that today."

The Diaz-Balarts have played a significant role in Cuban politics since the Batista days. Their father is the late Rafael Diaz-Balart, who served as the majority leader of the Cuban House of Representatives from 1954 to 1958. Their aunt, Mirta, was Castro's first wife and the mother of his first child. The couple divorced in 1955, one year after Lincoln was born.

The Diaz-Balart family fled Cuba for South Florida in 1960. Lincoln attended high school in Madrid, later earned a bachelor's degree from New College in Sarasota, and then received a law degree from Case Western Reserve. With an electric smile and a booming voice, he worked as a private litigator before attempting to begin a political career in 1982. Then 28 years old and a Democrat, he ran for the state house and lost.

In 1985, enchanted by Ronald Reagan's anti-Communism and perhaps sensing a better path to power, Lincoln and Mario switched parties. The next year, Lincoln entered the state house as a Republican. Soon he won a state senate seat, and in 1992 he was elected to Congress. Two years later, he became the first Hispanic in United States history to be named to the powerful Rules Committee.

Mario is seven years younger, less shrill, and more affable than his brother. He dropped out of the University of South Florida and followed Lincoln to the state house, eventually chairing the redistricting committee that created the congressional district where he won election.

Throughout their political careers, the Diaz-Balarts have vehemently opposed Castro. Just a year after election to Congress, Lincoln axed $23 million in federal funds for the district of U.S. Rep David Skaggs, a Colorado Democrat, after Skaggs succeeded in temporarily killing funds for TV Martí. In 1995, the South Florida congressman handcuffed himself to a White House fence to protest President Bill Clinton's Cuba policy and was arrested for civil disobedience.

A year later, Lincoln drafted much of the legislation that strengthened the embargo, attempting to leverage freeing of political prisoners and scheduling of elections. Mario has supported his brother's Cuba policies and the Bush administration's severe restrictions on sending money and traveling to the island.

Their zealotry has sometimes caused controversy. In 1985, Lincoln supported having an "Orlando Bosch Day" to celebrate the anti-Castro terrorist shortly after his release from a Venezuelan prison. Fifteen years later, the older Diaz-Balart advocated and won the release of José Dionisio Suárez Esquivel and Virgilio Paz Romero, both convicted for the notorious 1976 car bombing that killed Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier.

In 2003, the brothers lobbied the Panamanian government to free Luis Posada Carriles, who was imprisoned there for his role in an alleged plot to assassinate Castro and has been accused of killing dozens of Cubans in an airline bombing. He was later freed.

Of course, Lincoln has done many other things. In 1997, he helped restore disability benefits and food stamps to legal immigrants who had been cut off by welfare reform. The same year, he authored a measure that granted legal residency to hundreds of thousands of Central American immigrants in the United States. He also came up with legislation to stiffen penalties for stalking crimes against children.

Mario has staked out turf as a rare Republican environmentalist, win ning more than $1 billion for Everglades restoration and other local projects.

Just last week, the Miami Herald endorsed Mario (but not Lincoln), citing his dedication to environmental causes. "We recommend Mr. Diaz-Balart in this race ... for delivering resources and jobs to the district," the editors wrote.

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