Miami Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart used to enter his Capitol Hill office each morning sounding a battle cry for the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
“Codification!” he would shout, imploring his staff and anyone in hearing range to help him find a way to entrench the embargo so deeply into law that it could not be weakened by any president until the dawn of a democratic Cuba.
The embargo, in fact, was codified into law—at Diaz-Balart’s insistence—when then-President Bill Clinton reluctantly signed a bill in 1996 that required dramatic reforms in Cuba before the Cold War policy could be significantly changed. The congressman’s achievement has tied the hands of the White House ever since, stymied many of his colleagues in Congress and frustrated American tourists who yearn to legally visit the island 90 miles from Florida’s shores.
Diaz-Balart was still shouting “Codification!” last week while recounting his legacy, as he prepared to leave Congress after 18 years of representing a district that straddles Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
“The law requires free elections in Cuba before you can unilaterally allow U.S. tourism,” he exulted.
His message to the Castro regime: “Do you want those billions and billions of tourism dollars? Then unchain the Cuban people!”’
For Diaz-Balart, the cause is personal as well as political.
His father, Rafael Diaz-Balart, had been close friends with Fidel Castro before they parted ways and became bitter enemies. To the family’s dismay, Lincoln’s aunt, Mirta Diaz-Balart, married Castro in 1948, though they divorced six years later.
The Diaz-Balarts were closely associated with the government of Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban leader who was deposed by Castro in 1959, forcing the family into exile.
Lincoln grew up idolizing President Lyndon Johnson, a Cold War liberal who combined anti-communism with anti-poverty crusades. The young exile’s political evolution reflects the distinctive nature of Cuban-American politics, often misunderstood and full of apparent contradictions.
He’s a loyal Republican who once served as president of the Florida Young Democrats. He supports conservative causes but refused to sign the “Contract with America,” the Republican manifesto of 1994, because it contained provisions he deemed anti-immigrant.
He calls for fiscal restraint, but often sought federal aid for his working-class district, and last month he broke party ranks by voting to extend unemployment benefits.
He also strayed from the party line by supporting immigration reform that would include a path to citizenship for unauthorized foreign residents. And he criticizes Republican campaign rhetoric that “conveys the impression to the Hispanic community that it is under attack.”
Along the way, he bonded with Democrats, including former South Florida Congressman Robert Wexler, who served with him in the state Senate in the early ‘90s The young men from urban South Florida found themselves in a chamber dominated by older legislators, some from rural areas with vestiges of racial segregation.
Wexler, a Jewish liberal who now leads the Center for Middle East Peace, recalls Diaz-Balart telling him one day: “You follow me on Cuba, and I’ll follow you on Israel, and we’ll be all right.”
When he came to Congress in 1993, Diaz-Balart was a relatively moderate Republican who took an especially hard line on Cuba. Most of all, he was determined to safeguard the embargo.
The climax of his career came in 1996 when Clinton was loosening Cuba policy by establishing people-to-people contacts, talking with Cuban diplomats and allowing more Americans to visit the island.
Alarmed conservatives in Congress proposed restrictive measures known as the Helms-Burton bill to bolster the embargo, which was then enforced by executive order.
That’s when Diaz-Balart was looking for a way to codify the policy into law. He got his chance after Cuban jet fighters shot down two airplanes flown by an anti-Castro group called Brothers to the Rescue.
The violent act shocked the public and infuriated Cuban-Americans, especially in Florida. Clinton, who wanted to win the big electoral state in his 1996 re-election campaign, suddenly reversed his attempts to reach out to Cuba.
“President Clinton caved. And he sent me up to Capitol Hill to negotiate a deal,” Richard Nuccio, Clinton’s advisor on Cuba, recalled last week. “The president had already decided to sign the Helms-Burton bill. So all we could do was try to attach as big a fig leaf as we could to cover the capitulation.”
Bargaining hard, Diaz-Balart demanded a provision that requires the president to certify that certain conditions exist in Cuba before he or any future chief executive could lift the embargo.
Diaz-Balart fondly ticks off those conditions: “Liberation of all political prisoners. Legalization of all political parties. Freedom of the press and of labor unions. And the scheduling of multi-party elections with international supervision. That’s what I mean by codification!”
Feeling he has accomplished his goals, Diaz-Balart, 56, decided to retire from Congress this year and return to Miami to practice law. He plans to lead an institute called the White Rose, a non-profit group that channels aid to dissidents in Cuba.
His legacy of a hard-line Cuba policy is likely to remain intact, bolstered by Republican gains in the midterm elections and the elevation of his Cuban-American colleague, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, to lead the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
President Barack Obama has fulfilled his campaign pledge to allow Cuban-Americans to visit their families in Cuba and send as much money as they want. But major changes to the embargo – such as opening the island to tourists—would require action in Congress, and Obama has not indicated whether he will push for such legislation.
“Even though the ground has moved out from under him in some ways, Lincoln has remained a leader for those who want to isolate the Castro regime and bring it down from without,” said George Gonzalez, a political scientist at the University of Miami. “You could accuse him of being out of step (with much of the country.) But his position does remain a rallying point for the most vocal element of the exile community.”
—————————————- Havana Journal Comments—————————————-
The Havana Journal HAS NEVER supported Diaz-Balart’s efforts in Congress and has no plans to support any of his efforts with regards to aiding dissent in Cuba.