1. Florida Politics

Left out of the conversation: Miami's political guard sees influence wane on Cuba

President Barack Obama stands with Salvador Sanchez Mesa,  Vice President of the Council of Ministry, as they take part in a wreath laying ceremony at the Jose Marti memorial in Revolution Square on March 21 in Havana, Cuba.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama stands with Salvador Sanchez Mesa, Vice President of the Council of Ministry, as they take part in a wreath laying ceremony at the Jose Marti memorial in Revolution Square on March 21 in Havana, Cuba. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Published Apr. 9, 2016

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 "ridiculous."

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 old image.

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."

They don't.

"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 frontrunner 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 United States — 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 party affiliation.

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. In Florida, it was Republicans. Ros-Lehtinen. Lincoln Diaz-Balart. Mario Diaz-Balart. Mel Martinez. Marco Rubio. David Rivera. 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-year-old executive policy — into law with the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 and the Helms-Burton Act of 1996. Now only Congress can 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 health care 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, who is from a younger generation than his Miami counterparts in Congress, has taken a slightly different approach.

"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 pragmatic."

He blamed the foundation's splintering, which took place after Mas Canosa's death, 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 health care 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."