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Politics

Playing The Cuba Card: Can South Florida Escape Its Political Addiction?

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Pedro Portal
/
El Nuevo Herald

Few of Tuesday’s elections were as hard fought as Florida’s 26th congressional district – where Republican challenger Carlos Curbelo unseated incumbent Democratic Congressman Joe Garcia.

But the race is less likely to be remembered for that result than for how it may end up dropping the curtain on a time-honored Miami political tradition: playing the Cuba card.

Both Curbelo and Garcia are Cuban-American – and both injected the issue of communist Cuba into their campaigns. But this year there was a public backlash that suggests South Florida politics – if not the Cuban-American community – has finally shifted its focus away from The Island and back to The Peninsula.

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The 26th district stretches from Miami-Dade County across the Everglades. The local joke is that has more alligators than voters. But it has a great deal of Cuban-American voters – and candidates there usually have to prove they’re more anti-communist than the other guy.

Even so, heads turned in Spanish-speaking Miami last week when Garcia’s campaign released a TV ad featuring prominent Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas. In the spot, Fariñas stands in front of the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami and seems to endorse Garcia when he calls him a “compatriot committed to our struggle.”

But when Fariñas was later asked on the Mira TV network in Miami if he was aware he was being filmed for a campaign ad, he declined to answer.

“I don’t want to help or hurt either candidate,” he said.

Curbelo, a Miami-Dade School Board member, jumped on that ambiguity. He accused Garcia of manipulating a Cuban dissident; his campaign called the Garcia ad “irresponsible” and “unethical.”

Garcia, however, calls that charge “ridiculous and the height of hypocrisy.”

This is taking a step back in terms of the maturity that the Cuban-American community has shown in its politics. - Andy Gomez

He points out that Republicans themselves in the past have used Cuban dissidents in their campaigns – and that long before the Fariñas ad ran, Curbelo had branded Garcia as weak on communism. The reason: Garcia supports President Obama’s policy of letting Cuban-Americans visit Cuba and send relatives there money whenever they want.

Fariñas supports that policy too, which is why Garcia insists that including him in an ad was the only way to refute the Republicans’ attacks.

“For decades,” Garcia told me, “they have been using the Cuba issue in South Florida politics to win elections. So I’m responding to their accusations, and more important I’m proud of my Cuba policy and I’m honored that a dissident as respected as Fariñas would compliment my work.”

The Curbelo campaign did not respond to WLRN’s request for a rebuttal. But either way, the Fariñas dispute has ramped up calls for both parties to stop letting Cuba dominate South Florida politics.

And those appeals seem especially strong from Cuban-Americans themselves.

Among them: Andy Gomez, a former University of Miami provost and author of a new book, “Social Challenges Facing Cuba,” who is now a senior advisor for the Washington law and public policy firm Poblete Tamargo.

“Sure we care about Cuba,” Gomez says. “But Cuba is no longer a top priority” in these elections.

CUBAN STEREOTYPES

Gomez in fact worries that episodes like this encourage the stereotype that Cuban-Americans are emotionally obsessed with Cuba to the exclusion of other issues like the economy.

It reflects, he says, “taking a step back in terms of the maturity that the Cuban-American community has shown in terms of politics. Every once in a while we fall back into the politics of passion, and this is what we were seeing between Curbelo and Garcia.”

Gomez also notes that when dissidents like Fariñas get involved in U.S. politics, they’re more vulnerable to harassment by Cuba’s dictatorship. That’s especially true if, like Fariñas, they’ve received financial support from pro-democracy groups here – like the Cuban-American National Foundation, which Garcia used to head.

But Garcia argues, and rightly, that foreign affairs are part of a U.S. congressman’s portfolio. Bringing Cuba to the campaign mix, he insists, is legitimate.

Still, Cuban-Americans like Gomez say antiquated politics isn’t. Not the kind, anyway, that resorts to labeling rivals as Castro-friendly communists – or to pulling campaign endorsements from dissidents.

And both parties might want to remember what Fariñas told Mira TV last week:

“Yo no soy un elector en Sur Florida.”

“I’m not a South Florida voter.”

Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this piece referred to Carlos Curbelo as a former Miami-Dade School Board member. Mr. Curbelo has not yet left the board. We regret the error.

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