Congressman Joe Garcia had to choose between two worlds.
At one end of Garcia’s district, an ally persuaded fellow Key West city commissioners to unanimously pass a resolution inviting Cuban diplomats to the San Carlos Institute — a Duval Street landmark steeped in Cuban history, as well as tensions between exiles and the Castro regime.
The Key West resolution was met with outrage by some near the northern end of Garcia’s district, in Miami-Dade. His two Miami Cuban-American colleagues and another House member penned a letter that urged the U.S. State Department to block the diplomats’ Sunday visit from Washington.
Garcia didn’t sign.
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The diplomats canceled amid the controversy.
But questions now linger about Garcia’s exile bona fides and, more broadly, the direction of U.S.-Cuba policy amid South Florida’s shifting politics and demographics.
The San Carlos controversy marked the second time in as many weeks that Garcia ostensibly distanced himself from the rest of the Cuban-American delegation. Last Monday, the Miami Herald reported, Garcia became the only delegation member to help advocate for U.S. trials of a diabetes treatment developed by a Cuban regime institute.
“Joe Garcia is at a crossroads. We’re at a crossroads,” said Rafael Peñalver, an exile leader who heads the San Carlos Institute and led opposition to the Cuban diplomats’ visit.
“We have to decide, and he has to decide, if we’re going to advocate for an open Cuba with cosmetic changes by a repressive regime that uses the Cuban people as slave labor for a few business interests,” Peñalver said. “Or are we going to keep the pressure on for a free Cuba without the Castro regime and with true freedom for the Cuban people?”
But Garcia objected to the notion that the Cuban diplomats’ visit would help the regime.
Citing conversations with the U.S. State Department, Garcia said that allowing the Key West visit would lead to “reciprocity”: U.S. Interest Section diplomats in Havana would be allowed more travel in Cuba where they could help dissidents repressed by the Castro regime.
“I’m willing to bet no one’s going to become communists in Key West. But I do know dissidents need assistance in Cuba,” Garcia said.
“These people have no sustenance,” he said. “They are literally living at the tip of the most repressive regime in the hemisphere.”
Garcia also rejected suggestions from critics that he’s soft on Cuba. He wrote an April 30 letter to the State Department calling for Cuba to remain a designated state-sponsor of terrorism. And in a Sept. 19 letter, he joined with the other three Cuban-American House members by raising concerns over the regime’s involvement in selling art at a Houston art fair.
But the diabetes medicine and San Carlos issues show that Garcia’s positions on Cuba appear more nuanced than any other Cuban-American House member from the Miami area: former Miami Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and current Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. She represented Key West until the district was redrawn and pitted Rep. David Rivera against Garcia.
Garcia won the 2012 election in a race in which he refused to heavily court the exile vote the way Rivera did.
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.
Exile leaders say it’s a snake-oil promise from the regime.
“If it’s a hoax, they’re going to waste millions of dollars in the United States,” Garcia said. “If it works, it could help prevent up to 70,000 amputations a year.”
The effort is being spearheaded by former Democratic Rep. Bill Delahunt, a friend of Garcia’s.
“He let his friend Delahunt walk him down the plank,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, who runs the anti-regime U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, which opposed Garcia in 2012 but has since made peace.
“There’s no doubt I’m upset with him over this,” Claver-Carone said. “Joe didn’t do his due diligence, and he’s being used.”
Claver-Carone, however, said that Garcia overall has still been solid on anti-regime stances and said he understood the congressman’s desire to strike a “balance” with regards to the diplomats. Meantime, Peñalver said he understood Garcia’s involvement with the diabetes issue but was disappointed Garcia didn’t sign the letter opposing the diplomats’ visit.
Both Claver-Carone and Peñalver say South Florida opposition to the Cuban regime remains strong. The regime still represses, but it’s launching a full-scare public-relations campaign to appear more tolerant, they say.
A change in attitudes has been notable: President Obama came close to winning the once-reliably Republican Cuban-American vote. In 2012, Obama carried five of nine Republican state House seats in Miami-Dade that identified with Cuban-Americans, many of whom appreciate Obama’s loosening of Cuba travel and remittance policies. More Cuban Americans are traveling to the island — often multiple times — to see relatives in annual visits that could reach a number as high as 500,000.
Yaniz, who graduated from Miami’s Jackson Senior High School in 1968 before moving to Key West, said he saw a stark sign of change two years ago during a visit to Versailles Restaurant: A patron wearing a red T-shirt that depicted Castro revolutionary Che Guevara.
“No one said a thing,” Yaniz said. “In my day, growing up in Miami, he would have been killed.”
And no Miami congressman, he said, would have dared to espouse anything but the hardest of lines on Cuba years ago.
Garcia, though, said he would have acted the same way: “This isn’t about politics.”
Have the politics changed?
Garcia wouldn’t answer.