WASHINGTON — Florida's top Congressional Democrats broke with President Barack Obama on Tuesday over his administration's decision to issue Fidel Castro's niece a visa to attend a conference this week in San Francisco.
The opposition of Sen. Bill Nelson and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz came just hours after Republicans had blasted away at the visa decision — while failing to acknowledge that Republican President George W. Bush's administration had allowed Mariela Castro to visit the United States three times a decade ago.
The fact that Republicans had remained silent over Bush's decision while criticizing Obama gave Wasserman Schultz a measure of political cover in breaking with Obama.
"The Bush Administration set a bad precedent by granting Mariela Castro a waiver in 2001 and 2002 as I believe that such visa requests should not be accepted because of the ongoing human rights abuses in Cuba," she said in a written statement to the Miami Herald. "While I respect my colleagues, it's important to note they did not criticize President George W. Bush for granting Ms. Castro a waiver in 2002. Politics has no place when we are standing up for human rights."
Nelson was more terse and more concerned with the plight of a jailed American.
"Allowing Raul's daughter to come to the U.S when the regime still holds Alan Gross makes no sense," said Nelson, who faces a tough re-election campaign this fall.
Castro, a noted gay rights activist who heads a sex education center in Cuba, is the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro. She is scheduled to lead a panel on sexual diversity at the Latin American Studies Association conference in San Francisco this week. She is among more than 70 Cubans who applied for visas for the event; the State Department has denied about a half dozen of the requests.
Both Wasserman Schultz and Nelson had remained quiet on the visa controversy until asked this week by the Miami Herald.
Meanwhile, the Florida Democratic Party has been vigorously defending the Obama administration's visa decision since last week. That's when Cuban-American Republicans from Miami, including Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and David Rivera, began criticizing the administration's move.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a vice-presidential shortlister for Republican Mitt Romney, said it was "shameful" to grant the visa. He described the Cuban president's daughter as "an arm of his regime" who's coming to the United States to "spread their anti-American propaganda."
Romney's presidential campaign took advantage of the issue to slam Obama. "The United States should be standing up for freedom, not coddling the privileged children of communist dictators," Romney's policy director, Lanhee Chen said late last week.
On Tuesday, Republicans blasted out press releases all but calling Obama a communist. "Obama Lays Welcome Mat for Communist at U.S. Front Door" said one press release from the Hispanic Leadership Network. "Obama Rolling out the Red Carpet for the Castro Family," one from the Republican National Committee screamed.
The political tempest comes at a time when the Republican Party is attacking Obama's record at every turn to excite a crucial conservative voting bloc for Romney in Florida: Cuban-Americans.
In defending Obama, other Florida Democrats lashed out at Republicans for being hypocritical.
"Where was their criticism then?" said Freddy Balsera, an Obama supporter from Miami, speaking on behalf of the Florida Democratic Party. "Nowhere, because ultimately this is all about politics for them."
Balsera called on Republicans to "stop playing with people's emotions when it comes to Cuba."
The Hispanic Leadership Network, partly led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, says there's a huge difference between the Bush-era visits and the most recent visa approvals by Obama. The human rights situation in Cuba has deteriorated since Castro's initial visit, said its director, Jennifer Korn. That includes Alan Gross' detention.
Also, Mariela Castro, at the time of her initial visit, was the niece of then-president Fidel Castro. Now, she's the daughter of the Cuban president, Korn said.
"The situations are not the least bit similar as the human rights situation has deteriorated," she said. "An American citizen is locked up in a Cuban jail now for trying to provide internet access to Cubans, and in the last few months since Pope Benedict's visit, Cubans have lived under even more fear as they cope with a large roundup of dissidents and activists."
By day's end, the conservatives had unexpected ideological allies in Nelson and Wasserman Schultz, who has long straddled the dual worlds of being a partisan Democrat and a Cuba hardliner.
After she was first picked by Obama to become DNC chair, a May 2011 Miami Herald story noted that the two differ over Cuba.
"It's not going to be something that creates any daylight between the president and myself," she said at the time.