Jose Mallea, Perez's GOP primary opponent in House District 116, immediately jumped at the chance to attack, releasing an ad blasting Perez for taking a trip that feeds "the dictatorship while the Ladies in White are beaten, while dissidents are represents, and while exiles long for their homeland."
But perhaps Mallea should have sat this one out, considering his close ties to Ariel Pereda, a Miami businessman infamous for exporting products like candy bars and potato chips to Cuba through legal exemptions. Mallea once worked as a lobbyist for Pereda and later chaired a fundraising group founded by the businessman who regularly deals with Havana.
Mallea's work for Pereda was perfectly legal, but it raises a serious question of just how strongly Mallea believes that traveling to Cuba or spending money on the island "feeds the dictatorship." After all, Pereda's work has a much bigger impact on the Cuban economy than a 29-year-old who took some engagement photos there.
Speaking with New Times last night, Mallea confirmed he'd lobbied for one of Pereda's firms, called PM Strategies, "once, for three months" in 2007, on behalf of Dell Computers, and later chaired a political action committee Pereda had founded after the businessman resigned. He said he "could not remember" who asked him to take over the committee, but did say he and Pereda have remained friends since they first worked together.
"But I strongly disagree with what he does, and he knows that," Mallea said of his friend. Mallea maintained that it's still fair for him to criticize his opponent, Perez, for traveling to Cuba.
"My opponent’s travel to Cuba is relevant in this race because it demonstrates his poor judgment and questionable character," Mallea explained via email. "His decision to use communist suffering as a backdrop for his engagement photos is offensive to the countless Cuban exiles in the district he is seeking to represent. I have never been to Cuba. As the son of a Cuban father whose family was torn apart, I would never honor the Castro dictatorship with my presence, much less with my dollars."
Mallea's close ties to a known exporter to Cuba were disclosed in a series of Miami Herald articles from 2010. But the Herald's latest stories criticizing Perez for his Cuba trip did not mention Mallea's friendship with Pereda.
Pereda has long chaired a firm called the Havana Group, which advises businesses on how to legally trade with Cuba and get around the embargo. According to the New York Times, Pereda has used legal exemptions to export "American goods like Hershey chocolates and Pringles potato chips" to Cuba since 2002.
Both Mallea and Pereda also once ran a fundraising group called the Future Leadership Committee. State election documents show Mallea took over as the group's chairperson at some point after Pereda resigned. When the committee dissolved in 2010, the address listed alongside Mallea's name was the same one used for PM Strategies, Pereda's lobbying firm.
"The Future Leadership Committee was an organization that I chaired in support of conservative causes and candidates," Mallea wrote via email. "It was registered at that address prior to my involvement."
Mallea said he could not remember exactly who asked him to take over the committee or pushed him to get involved.
Mallea and Pereda both have close ties to big-name political candidates across the state, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Congressman David Rivera, who was once named the most corrupt member of Congress. Pereda's friendship with Rivera also hurt the anti-embargo candidate that year: On July 1, 2010, the Herald reported that "State Rep. David Rivera's close relationship with a businessman who facilitates trade with Cuba is becoming increasingly awkward for the congressional candidate, one of Florida's most outspoken proponents of the embargo on the island."
Mallea, meanwhile, previously worked as Rubio's campaign manager. He's also worked at the U.S. Small Business Administration, for the Florida Department of Education, and on former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz's staff. He also served as Newt Gingrich's Florida campaign director during the former House speaker's 2012 presidential bid, as well as on Jeb Bush's catastrophic 2016 bid. Mallea is now the co-owner of Biscayne Bay Brewing Company.
The troubling political ties to PM Strategies don't end with Mallea: Current U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo also sat on the board of PM Strategies from 2004 to 2005 before eventually resigning. Curbelo said in 2014 that the company was a "short-lived advertising venture" that went nowhere, which allegedly occurred before Pereda began doing business with Cuba. (According to the New York Times, though, Curbelo's assertion was false.)
"Again, my position is clear," Mallea wrote. "I am not in favor of travel to Cuba and have never traveled to the island like my opponent did for his engagement photos."