In an impassioned speech Tuesday, Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, asked her fellow senators to join her in opposing President Barack Obama’s recent decision to open up diplomatic relations with Cuba.
All but one senator agreed.
The measure, which also discourages the federal government from allowing a Cuban consulate in Florida, is largely symbolic but sends an important message to the Obama administration in the minds of Cuban-American members of the state Senate.
“A lot of my friends and colleagues have asked why we care so deeply,” Flores began in stepping to the Senate floor to tell the story of how her mother had fled the communist island nation as a girl.
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She spoke about the “hundreds of thousands [who] sit in prison every day for having the gall to stand up and say something.” And she showed photographs of the Ladies in White, the wives and family members of imprisoned Cuban dissidents who hold regular protests in Havana.
“They are spit upon, they are beat up, they are harassed,” Flores bellowed.
Flores said the Obama administration’s decision to ease travel restrictions to Cuba would allow American visitors to “have it all,” while Cuban residents would continue to suffer.
“I know you’ve seen the pictures of the beautiful beaches where the tourists can go,” she said. “No one who is a Cuban citizen can go to those places.”
Her call for support was echoed by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican who said members of his family had been imprisoned and killed for speaking out against the government.
Diaz de la Portilla said the new Cuba policy would “do nothing but ensure that the [Castro] regime stays in power.”
“To think that by spending American cash, so Americans can buy Cuban cigars and Cuban rum, and stay at hotels on stolen land, that these two obstinate octogenarian dictators and their cronies are going to change anything is naive at best,” he said.
Sen. René García, R-Hialeah, urged his colleagues to “send a message to this administration that we understand the plight and the problems [Cubans] are facing, and that we must continue to put the pressure on the Castro regime to open up and be transparent.”
The measure passed on a voice vote, with Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, saying he was proud to stand with the members of the Miami-Dade Legislative Delegation.
Only one senator opposed the proposal.
Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat, said she understood the Cuban-American senators’ “passion and pain.” But she defended Obama’s “historic steps to chart a new course” in Cuba.
“I know in my heart that there was no malice intended by the promulgation of this policy by the Obama administration, and I know that his moving this forward is an effort to bring freedom to the Cuban nation,” Joyner said.
A similar proposal, sponsored by Republican Reps. Manny Diaz Jr. and Jeanette Núñez, is ready for a vote in the Republican-dominated House.
So far, the House version has yet to win the support of a single Democrat. But Núñez hopes that will change.
“This is not a partisan debate for us,” she said. “We’re not going to denigrate the president. We’re going to keep it to the policy.”
Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.