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Will Bovo Vs. Levine Cava Be A Mayor's Race – Or A Return To McCarthyite Miami?

Miami-Dade county commissioners and mayoral run-off candidates Esteban "Steve" Bovo (left) and Daniella Levine Cava
Pedro Portal and Daniel A. Varela
Miami Herald
Miami-Dade county commissioners and mayoral run-off candidates Esteban "Steve" Bovo (left) and Daniella Levine Cava

COMMENTARY Red-baiting helped propel Esteban "Steve" Bovo into the mayoral run-off. If it gets louder, it could set Miami-Dade's image back – about 20 years.

If you’ve followed Miami-Dade County politics since the turn of the century, it was no shock that former Mayor Alex Penelas’ comeback bid failed. What does stand out in Tuesday’s non-partisan primary election is Esteban “Steve” Bovo’s commanding performance – because one of the big reasons Penelas’ mayoral tenure was such a disappointment is a big reason Bovo’s been propelled into the November mayoral run-off.

Penelas, a Democrat, finished third behind county commissioners Bovo, a Republican, and Daniella Levine Cava, a Democrat. Penelas lost in no small part because bad memories of his 1996-2004 mayoralty linger like Miami’s August humidity. His public transit debacle figures prominently, but another embarrassment is hard to forget: his refusal 20 years ago to enforce a federal court order to return 6-year-old Elián González to his father in communist Cuba.

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That was Penelas’ glaring contribution to an episode that made Miami, city and county, an international scofflaw and the butt of “banana republic” jokes. It was the product of a McCarthyite code, pounded in by Cuban exile hardliners and pandered to by Cuban-American Penelas, that said the slightest whiff of concession to communists – even restoring a little boy to his dad – makes you a dastardly communist too.

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The Elián fiasco discredited those hardliners to a large extent – and the intolerance. But in recent years, thanks to President Trump’s new get-tough-on-Cuba policies, it’s reared its head again. And there’s a real fear it will roar again between now and November.

After all, Bovo’s primary campaign seems to have benefitted from it; and so his run-off effort against Levine Cava may well ramp it up.

Exhibit A is the way Bovo, also a Cuban-American, has played the communism card during the COVID-19 pandemic. When Levine Cava, a non-Cuban, proposed legislation in May requiring private county contractors to offer employees seven days of sick leave, Bovo helped derail it by ludicrously declaring it the insidious “communism” regimes in Cuba and Venezuela practice.

The intolerant rhetoric that's rearing its head again is a reminder of a moment when Miami was an international scofflaw and the butt of banana republic jokes.

I’m neither endorsing Levine Cava nor renouncing Bovo. You can argue Levine Cava’s proposal makes sense during the worst public health crisis in a century; you can also argue there’d be significant costs and bureaucracy involved. But that’s not the issue here. The troubling red flag is the bullying red-baiting most metro Miamians thought was so 20 years ago.

It’s not. Trump warned this week that if his Democratic rival Joe Biden wins in November, the U.S. “will be a very large-scale Venezuela.” Most voters likely find the remark ridiculous. But Trump knows that on a very large scale conservative Cubans, Venezuelans and other Latinos in Florida – whose votes could swing the state his way – find it realistic. In fact, few cohorts in America have so ardently embraced the president’s claim that Democrat = Socialist.


Many are expressing it in increasingly toxic fashion. One meme flying around social media this week is a photo of Cuban-American musical icons Gloria and Emilio Estefan, who don’t support Trump, with the large caption: “Meet the Cuban Traitors of Miami [who] will vote for Commie Biden over Trump.”

Then Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas rejecting a federal court order to return Elian Gonzalez to his Cuban father in 2000.
C.M. Guerrero
Miami Herald
Then Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas rejecting a federal court order to return Elian Gonzalez to his Cuban father in 2000.

I’ve often accused Trump of flirting with the same authoritarian rule so many Latin Americans came here to escape (like “waiting and seeing” if he’ll accept November’s election results, as his spokeswoman said this week). But I’ll also concede liberals can go over the top when they compare Trump to Latin America’s gallery of right-wing dictators. That can trivialize the genuine horrors of Pinochet as much as the communist witch-hunting can obscure the true tyranny of Castro.

So I’d also ask liberals in Miami-Dade not to commit the same mob politics against Bovo, a Trump supporter, that I sense conservatives are limbering up for in the mayoral run-off against Levine Cava.

To forge a majority in November, Bovo has to decide whether the Penelas voters he needs are more like Alex the moderate or Alex the anti-commie panderer. If he sees the former, the contest will likely focus on issues that matter in Miami-Dade, like affordable housing, transportation and the environment. If he sees the latter, he’ll probably spend the fall crudely painting Levine Cava as Che Guevara.

And Miami, once again, could be the butt of “banana republic” jokes.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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