WASHINGTON — In 18 years as a congressman, Lincoln Diaz-Balart sat on the powerful House rules committee, championed citizenship for undocumented college students and brought home dollars for South Florida institutions. But his defining cause was always Cuba.
The Miami Republican's announcement Thursday that he won't seek re-election to Congress comes as advocates for easing the Cuban embargo suggest they have their best shot at success in years.
But observers said Thursday that although Diaz-Balart's forceful, decades-long advocacy of a hard line against Cuba will be difficult to match, his efforts will endure.
"Lincoln is the senior statesman, he helped create the policy, but there are a lot of people working to keep it," said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of a leading pro-embargo lobby, the U.S. Cuba Democracy political action committee.
Still, Diaz-Balart's retirement does signal the end of an era, said Daniel Erikson, the author of The Cuba Wars.
Diaz-Balart, 55, is the second high-ranking Cuban-American politician to leave Washington in the past year. Florida Sen. Mel Martinez gave up his seat last year. Erikson noted that Diaz-Balart's chief opponents in the Senate, Democrats Chris Dodd and Bryon Dorgan — who want to lift the embargo — also announced plans to retire in 2010. Few lawmakers, Erikson said, share Diaz-Balart's "single-minded passion."
Those who might follow in his footsteps acknowledge that his influence will be hard to duplicate.
"No one is going to have his legislative experience or clout," said state Senate Majority Leader Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, a possible candidate for the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. Mario Diaz-Balart announced Thursday he is running for his brother's more Republican-friendly seat.
"It's a system based on seniority, and his advocacy has really allowed us to do everything we can to impose sanctions on Cuba," Diaz de la Portilla said.
Diaz-Balart's tactics extended beyond routine legislative maneuvers: In 1995, he was arrested outside the White House while protesting President Bill Clinton's Cuba policy. And just a year after his 1992 election to Congress, he retaliated against a lawmaker who cut Radio and TV Marti's budget, slashing millions of dollars from a project in the Colorado lawmaker's district.
Sarah Stephens, a leading advocate of lifting the ban against travel to Cuba, called it "hard to mourn the retirement of such a virulent and effective cold warrior," but said she hoped for a Diaz-Balart replacement "who has a better sense of America's national interest and a modern approach to Cuba."
Diaz-Balart never apologized for his unwavering opposition to Fidel Castro, but sought during a bruising re-election challenge in 2008 and in his announcement Thursday to underscore other accomplishments.
Still, said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, "Nothing is closer to Lincoln's heart than the struggle for freedom in his beloved Cuba."