Once mighty, Miami’s political guard left out of conversation on Cuba
The Cuban-American political guard has been left out
It wasn’t involved in President Obama’s Cuba policy
The politicians face the prospect of four or eight more years of the same
BY PATRICIA MAZZEI
President Barack Obama’s historic trip to Cuba last month marked the
culmination of a foreign policy he laid out eight years as ago as a
candidate, when he broke with his predecessors and pledged to sit down
with unfriendly dictators, because punishing them with silence seemed
He did more than just meet with Raúl Castro. Obama, flexing his office’s
extensive executive power over international affairs, dismantled almost
every piece of the U.S.’s Cold War-era approach to Cuba.
Left out of the conversation: anyone who disagreed, including the eight
Cuban Americans — Republican and Democrat — in Congress 57 years after
the Cuban revolution. Half of them — one senator and three
representatives — hail from Miami, the new city exiles made in Havana’s
For eight years, they’ve had zero input on the issue on which some of
them built their political careers. And now they face the prospect of
four or eight more years of the same, with a new White House tenant come
January. Castro has promised to retire in 2018.
Miami’s Cuban-American political guard risks losing any influence it has
left at a time when Cuba could undergo its most sweeping changes.
“There’s no doubt about it,” said Pepe Hernández, president of the Cuban
American National Foundation, which supports the Cuba policy Obama
unveiled 15 months ago. “Like they say in dominó, they have been
shuffled off the table, quite substantially, in the past few years — but
especially since Dec. 17, 2014.
“But I don’t think, honestly, they care much.”
“I’m not hurt at all — it frees up my day,” Miami Republican Rep. Ileana
Ros-Lehtinen said of not talking to Obama. “He’s of no consequence to us.”
But what about the next president?
Of the five presidential candidates left from both political parties,
only Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Cuban-American Republican whose father is
from Matanzas, has adopted the traditional hardline position on Cuba and
vowed to reverse Obama’s policy. Ohio Gov. John Kasich hasn’t gone as
far, though he’s called the policy changes a “big mistake.” GOP
front-runner Donald Trump, while critical of the White House’s
negotiated terms with Cuba, has said Obama’s approach is “fine.”
On the other side, there’s deep commitment to Obama’s Cuba doctrine.
Democrat Hillary Clinton came last year to Florida International
University, the cradle of Cuban-American academia, to advocate lifting
the embargo. Her opponent, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described
democratic socialist, has visited Cuba several times. Last month,
standing on a Miami Dade College stage, he praised Cuban “advances” on
health care and education.
Miami’s Cuban-American politicians, however, maintain they — and their
views — will outlast Obama and anyone who follows him.
Congress is the one place where Cuban-American politicians still have
some influence — and the only place where two cornerstone pieces of Cuba
legislation still stand: the U.S. trade embargo that prohibits open
business with Cuba, and the Cuban Adjustment Act that allows Cubans to
legally remain in the U.S. — both of which Cuba desperately wants repealed.
The next president probably won’t push for lifting the embargo as much
as Obama, posited Mauricio Claver-Carone, the head of the U.S.-Cuba
Democracy political action committee in Washington who opposes Obama’s
approach: “It’s not a legacy issue for his successor, regardless of who
his successor is.”
The representatives have done the legwork to court Capitol Hill support
for the existing laws.
“Unlike the president,” Ros-Lehtinen said, “we keep in touch with
members of Congress.”
“We have more support in the House now than we ever had,” Republican
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart added, noting that, last June, the House voted
247-176 against easing Cuba travel restrictions, and 273-153 against
allowing direct exports to the Cuban military.
Diaz-Balart has tired of countering suggestions that his Cuban-American
constituents have changed their minds on isolating the island. He keeps
a Notes file on his iPhone of newspaper headlines — dating back to 1965
— proclaiming the imminent end of the hard line.
“The president has seven or eight months left in the White House,”
Diaz-Balart said. “He would like to believe that everything that he has
done and is doing is written in stone, but the reality is, I think
you’re going to see a rather dramatic reversal. Those who are paying
attention, those who have contacts within the opposition, with folks in
the island, know these policies are dangerous and disastrous.”
That seemed like a difficult argument to make to Havana residents during
Obama’s visit. The vast majority warmly welcomed the president and
sounded hopeful their impoverished daily lives might get better with a
more robust American presence. Cuba has already embarked on some
changes, a few made before Obama’s new policy, including allowing some
small businesses, property sales and internet access.
“Every time I run into a Cuban-American friend of mine — those not so
friendly — they say, ‘How can you do this?’” said Joe Arriola, the
Miami-Dade Public Health Trust chairman who champions Obama’s policy. “I
say, ‘Before you say another word, get on an airplane and go to Cuba
with me.’ I’ve been successful in changing their mind every single time.
“You don’t do this for the government. You do this for 11.5 million people.”
Three decades ago, the prospect of a U.S. president making any sort of
overture to Cuba — and repudiating Miami’s Cuban-American stalwarts
—would have been unthinkable.
Jorge Mas Canosa, a businessman and immigrant from Santiago de Cuba,
created the Cuban American National Foundation, giving exiles a united
voice in Washington. Following the blueprint of the American Israel
Public Affairs Committee, the foundation adopted a pragmatic approach:
Support politicians on the right side of the Cuba issue, regardless of
Mas Canosa had the ear of President Ronald Reagan, and the foundation’s
power grew as the first generation of Cuban Americans rose to
prominence. In New Jersey, it was a Democrat, now-Sen. Bob Menendez (who
was succeeded in the House by a fellow Cuban-American, Rep. Albio
Sires). In Florida, it was Republicans. Ros-Lehtinen. Lincoln
Diaz-Balart. Mario Diaz-Balart. Mel Martinez. Sen. Marco Rubio. David
Rivera. Rep. Carlos Curbelo.
President after president heard them out, even Democrat Bill Clinton
(“Oh my gosh, you better believe it, President Clinton would consult
with us,” Ros-Lehtinen said), though his positions worried Cuban
Americans so much they codified the trade embargo — then a 32-old
executive policy — into law with the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 and the
Helms-Burton Act of 1996. Now only Congress could undo the sanctions.
That’s the last remaining political leverage Congress still has over the
White House, said former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who spearheaded the
codification effort. The law requires that Cuba meet certain conditions
— liberation of political prisoners, legalization of political parties
and labor unions, free elections — before the embargo can be lifted.
Those conditions are the only things keeping the Cuban government from
cracking down harder on critics and dissidents, Diaz-Balart argued. The
government might detain dissidents for a few hours rather than throw
them in jail indefinitely to allow the Cubans to contend they don’t hold
political prisoners, he said.
“I don’t care how many businessmen want to make a buck dealing with the
dictatorship,” Diaz-Balart said. “The members of Congress make policy,
and the members of Congress have the national interests of the United
States and the Cuban people at heart.”
Those businessmen — all of them unelected — are the ones chiefly
advising the Obama administration. Some are Republican constituents —
and financial backers — of not only the Miami Cuban-American
politicians, but also other big GOP names.
One of the magnates, Coral Gables healthcare billionaire Mike Fernandez,
last month hosted House Speaker Paul Ryan in his Coral Gables mansion.
The meeting, first reported by Politico, included Rep. Curbelo, the only
local Republican congressman who’s met with the White House on Cuba
policy. Curbelo sought out Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes
when he visited Miami shortly before Obama’s trip.
Though he opposes Obama and Fernandez on Cuba, Curbelo said he’s taken a
slightly different approach than his Miami counterparts in Congress
because he’s further removed from the exile generation.
“No one took my home,” he said. “My grandfather was tortured in
political prison — that’s the reason I won’t go to Cuba while Raúl and
Fidel are in power — but I don’t consider it una traición to go. I
believe people who have lived in misery for decades, anything that could
represent a change for the better, they’ll grasp onto. Unfortunately,
doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.”
His careful positioning now that he’s in a more Democratic-leaning
district will likely become a campaign issue raised by Joe Garcia, one
of two Democrats seeking to challenge Curbelo in November. Garcia held
the congressional seat before Curbelo ousted him in 2014, and he’s the
former Cuban American National Foundation executive director who shifted
the organization from anti- to pro-Cuban engagement.
“I am as responsible as anyone for the policy we have in place,” Garcia
conceded, recalling his past days endorsing the hard line. “I’m also
He blamed the foundation’s splintering, which took place after Mas
Canosa’s death in 1997, on losing sight of the group’s initial
nonpartisan approach — which in turn eroded Cuban-American Republicans’
influence, he said.
“The reality is that they pushed this issue, they pushed it really hard,
but they ended up isolating themselves from the broader debate on Cuba
policy because it became such orthodoxy that it was impossible for
people to say, ‘How about we do this? How about we try this?’” Garcia
said. “They became a tool of the Republican Party as opposed to a tool
of promoting change in Cuba.”
And they relied on older Cuban exiles — known in local politics as
viejitos, old folks — who react to the issue with raw emotion, according
to Fernandez, the Gables healthcare executive.
“Two or three members of Congress can hold up a national agenda,” he
lamented. “Two or three members of Congress who make it a point to get
elected by reminding people my parents’ age of the saddest days — and
the worst days — of their lives.”
Republicans say that’s nonsense, pointing to their colleagues Menendez
and Sires, and to other Democrats, such as Weston Rep. Debbie Wasserman
Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, who have taken a
cautious tone on Obama’s Cuba policy.
“If you want to know really where the Cuban community stands, look at
the people they elect,” said Frank Calzón, the first Cuban American
National Foundation director, who now heads the Center for a Free Cuba.
“The members of Congress that were sidelined by the administration,
their constituencies are not going to turn their backs on them for
courageously doing what they believe is right.”
Source: Once mighty, Miami’s political guard left out of conversation on
Cuba | Miami Herald –