Partisan politics explains some of the strategy. The exile vote tends to be older and leans more Republican.
Garcia is a Democrat and, allies say, pulls more support from non-Cuban Hispanics, younger Cubans and newer Cuban-American immigrants, many of whom view the Castro regime in a less-toxic light than those who fled soon after the 1959 revolution.
When Garcia unsuccessfully ran against Diaz-Balart in a different district in 2008, Garcia made Cuba a more central issue, displaying an official campaign photo that showed him standing with Old Glory in front and a Cuban flag as a backdrop.
In the new district that included the Florida Keys, Garcia was able to run for a seat that included voters far more inclined than many in Miami to oppose the embargo or support Cuba travel.
One sign of that support: The unanimously approved resolution — moved by Key West City Commissioner Tony Yaniz, a Garcia ally — inviting the diplomats to the San Carlos and a historic Cuban cemetery site.
“Key West’s culture and history is so much more intertwined with Havana than Miami,” Yaniz said. “We’re trying to rekindle that part of our relationship. There’s no secret communist conspiracy here. This is history.”
Not everyone on the island approved. And when Yaniz called Peñalver, who lives in Coral Gables, the conversation was heated.
“This is an insult,” Peñalver told him.
Yaniz responded by saying that some of the opposition was the thinking of “Cold War dinosaurs.”
The two men, both born in Havana, came to the United States within a year of each other in the early 1960s.
The San Carlos is “sacred ground for the Cuban people, its ideals stand for everything that the regime is opposed to,” Peñalver said, noting that the father of Cuba’s independence, Jose Martí, gave a unifying speech from the balcony on Jan. 3, 1892.
One hundred years later, thanks to the efforts of Peñalver and others, the San Carlos was reopened and saved from decay.
Two years later, in 1994, tensions flared when a Fidel Castro-aligned group occupied the building. One exile, Armando Alejandre, fought back by breaking down a glass door with a sledgehammer. Peñalver, an attorney who preferred peaceful protest, prevailed in court to wrest back control of the institute.
In 1996, Cuban jets shot down Alejandre and three others in the Brothers to the Rescue group as they attempted to aid rafters fleeing Cuba. The shoot-down of the unarmed planes in international waters swiftly led to the passage of tighter embargo restrictions known as the Helms-Burton Act and the conviction in 2001 of five spies. Garcia, then head of the Cuban-American National Foundation, called for Castro’s indictment.
Relatives of Alejandre and other victims of Castro would have protested the Cuban diplomats if they came to the San Carlos, Peñalver said.
As the controversy exploded, Garcia persuaded Yaniz to back off the idea of a San Carlos visit.
Yaniz lauded Garcia for not joining Ros-Lehtinen, Diaz-Balart and New Jersey Democratic Rep. Albio Sires in signing the Oct. 3 letter protesting the diplomats’ visit. He said Garcia had courage in backing efforts to ask for Treasury Department approval of tests for the Cuba-developed diabetes treatment.