In Miami, stirrings of change

Relations with Cuba are regularly a major issue in U.S. election campaigns – local and national – in the important state of Florida, especially South Florida. And usually the most anti-Cuban-government voice wins.

In this year’s congressional elections, Republican Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart face strong Democratic opponents. The brothers Diaz-Balart represent Miami and the South Florida region. They symbolize the sway of the old pro-Batista supporters in Miami. Their father, Rafael, was one of the dictator’s henchmen before the 1959 revolution. The father had urged his sons to work politically for the overthrow of socialism in Cuba.

They now may be paying the price for this. In Florida’s 21st CD, Lincoln Diaz-Balart faces former Hialeah mayor Raul Martinez. Martinez is well financed and has never lost an election since 1981. In the 25th CD, Mario Diaz-Balart is opposed by Joe Garcia, former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, long a funding conduit for anti-Cuban plotting.

While these challengers aren’t about to embrace socialist Cuba, they oppose the worst of the travel and financial limitations that Cuban Americans face. The Diaz-Balart brothers support the Bush-imposed tightening of restrictions on Cuban Americans who want to visit relatives in Cuba on provide them with financial support.

The challengers also question the brothers’ “obsession” with Cuba to the exclusion of other issues roiling South Florida. Martinez blasted Lincoln Diaz-Balart for having “nothing to show for his 15 years in Congress. Cuba, that’s all he talks about.” According to Garcia, “With a slowing economy and two wars being waged abroad, South Florida needs an independent-minded voice in Washington who will put our families before partisan politics.”

Polling data released June 18 by the Miami-based Foundation for Normalization of US/Cuba Relations suggests that Martinez and Garcia reflect prevailing community opinion. In Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s district, 61 percent of the respondents would ease travel restrictions on Cuban Americans and 60 percent would ease the travel rules affecting all U.S. citizens. In Mario Diaz-Balart’s district, the numbers were 63 percent and 59 percent respectively.

In the nearby 17th CD, which represents parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties and is represented by Democrat Kendrick Meek, the numbers were even higher. Only 12 percent agreed that concentration on regime change in Cuba was an important issue.

The U.S. Congress is weighing in on Cuban-American travel to Cuba. On June 17 a House appropriations subcommittee added a provision to a bill funding the Treasury Department that would allow yearly visits to relatives on the island instead of visits only once every three years. Cousins, aunts and uncles would be added to the currently restricted list of relatives approved for visiting. Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) introduced an amendment that would relieve Cuba of having to pay for U. S. food shipments prior to delivery. The measures face scrutiny by the appropriations committee and the Senate.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has picked up on the divide among Cuban American voters over travel to Cuba. At a gala event May 23 hosted by the Cuban American National Foundation he promised to ease restrictions on Cuban Americans visiting the island and on money they send to relatives there. Unfortunately, he also promised to keep the embargo against Cuba in place.

The Latin American Working Group has called upon constituents to pressure congressional representatives to back the easing of restrictions on visits to and sending of money to Cuba.