Miami-Dade County

Miami congressional candidates differ on U.S.-Cuba policy

Rep. Joe Garcia, right, a Miami Democrat, is running for reelection against Republican Carlos Curbelo, left.
Rep. Joe Garcia, right, a Miami Democrat, is running for reelection against Republican Carlos Curbelo, left. MIAMI HERALD FILES

Miami Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia and Republican opponent Carlos Curbelo disagree on whether more Americans should be allowed to travel to Cuba and send more money to relatives on the island.

But that significant policy difference didn’t get much attention until this week, when a pro-Cuba-travel television advertisement began airing in Miami.

The TV spot, launched Monday by the Miami-based liberal-leaning Cuba Now nonprofit, sticks out because of what it isn’t: a slick, highly produced piece bashing Curbelo or Garcia – like most of the others funded by well-heeled outside political groups in the close contest for Florida’s 26th congressional district.

Instead, the ad has a throwback, low-budget feel. Unidentified people speak directly into the camera in Spanish and urge voters to back candidates who support more Cuba travel. Their words are subtitled in English.

It’s a straight so-called “issue” ad. Most ads funded by outside groups technically fall under that category as well, but usually they make clear which candidate they’re supposed to benefit. This one makes no mention of Garcia or Curbelo.

Yet after the two candidates debated in Marathon on Monday evening and were asked about U.S.-Cuba policy, Cuba Now released a statement criticizing Curbelo, who said at the forum that he could not “support any unilateral concessions to an enemy of the United States — in this case, the Cuban government.” The congressional district stretches from Westchester to Key West.

“It’s time that Carlos Curbelo and other politicians who cling to a hardline position begin to recognize the reality of both Cuban-Americans and the Cuban people,” Cuba Now Executive Director Ric Herrero said in a statement. “No one should have to choose between visiting a sick parent or going to their funeral because their own government denies them the right to travel, but that’s exactly what Mr. Curbelo’s position would lead to.”

Herrero, the former executive director for the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, accused Curbelo of wanting to tighten travel restrictions that President Barack Obama loosened in 2009, allowing virtually all family-reunification visits. Curbelo, a Miami-Dade school board member, told the Miami Herald in an interview Wednesday that is not the case.

“I’m not advocating for any change in our existing travel policy with regards to Cubans visiting their family members,” he said, adding that he does take issue with the Obama administration’s granting visas to members of the Cuban government or people close to them to visit the U.S.

Garcia, on the other hand, calls for greater U.S. travel to Cuba, saying the more open policy — which he long advocated — has been a success. He also favors lifting caps to remittances Americans can send relatives on the island.

“Part of what we have to realize is that the civil society [in Cuba] is nourished by this,” Garcia said in an interview Wednesday. “I think that a free person standing in Cuba — that does more damage than all the noise that one can make here over the course of a year.”

The district represents extreme views on U.S.-Cuba policy. The Florida Keys, especially Key West, have a strong sentiment opposed to the U.S. trade embargo against the island — which both candidates support — while it remains popular among older, Cuban exile communities in West Miami-Dade.

A Miami Herald/el Nuevo Herald poll in June found a majority of respondents support unrestricted travel to Cuba, with particularly strong support among younger, U.S.-born Cuban Americans. A Florida International University survey later that month reported similar findings.

The two candidates also differ on the future of the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, the federal law that gives Cuban arrivals a pathway to U.S. citizenship after being in the country for one year and one day — a special privilege awarded to no other foreign nationals.

Curbelo wants to toughen the legislation so it would apply only to Cubans fleeing political persecution — a far narrower definition than exists today, when any Cuban who reaches U.S. soil can have their immigration status “adjusted” to be in the country legally.

Other Republicans, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Miami Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, all Curbelo supporters, have endorsed revisions to discourage Cubans from coming to the U.S. to obtain their residency, only to frequently return to the island.

“We have to reform the law to prevent abuse of this generous law,” Curbelo said. “Otherwise, how do we explain this to Colombians, Venezuelans, Haitians, Dominicans that would also like to come to the United States because they feel the policy is inconsistent?”

But Garcia says the law, which he called “a tremendous advantage that Cuban Americans have,” should remain intact. Though he acknowledged some people abuse the privilege, the congressman said he cannot endorse changing the law after so many Cubans have already benefited.

“To hear some Cuban Americans make this argument — ‘I got in, now lock the door’ — it’s absurd,” Garcia said.