Miami-Dade County

Cuba takes center stage in extra debate between Miami congressional candidates

Republican Carlos Curbelo, left, is challenging Miami Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia, right.
Republican Carlos Curbelo, left, is challenging Miami Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia, right. MIAMI HERALD FILES

The hard-fought Miami campaign between U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia and challenger Carlos Curbelo had been noteworthy in part because of how rarely the candidates had brought up the issue of Cuba.

Until Tuesday, that is.

In a bonus, eighth debate a week after what had been billed as the seventh and final debate, the Republican Curbelo and Democrat Garcia spoke at length about what role, if any, Cuban politics should play in Miami politics.

The very discussion showed that, like it or not, the issue remains significant — at least in the waning days of a campaign, when the race remains close and candidates need to ensure that their strongest backers vote.

Triggering the conversation was a political advertisement Garcia debuted on Spanish-language television Monday starring a Cuban dissident.

Garcia had campaigned for another congressional term by focusing on bread-and-butter Democratic issues — Medicare, Social Security, student loans — and generally avoided the topic of Cuba. But his latest ad appears to be an attempt to shore up support among Cuban Americans, who tend to be older and more conservative and would recognize dissident leader Guillermo Fariñas.

Fariñas staged more than 20 hunger strikes in Cuba to force the release of political prisoners. He won the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Conscience in 2010 and has advocated for tough U.S. sanctions on Cuba until the island’s Communist regime moves toward democracy.

“For decades, Joe Garcia has been a compatriot committed to our fight,” Fariñas says in the ad, shot in front of downtown Miami’s Freedom Tower.

His appearance prompted a rebuke not only from Curbelo, but also by other Cuban Americans who questioned whether Fariñas — who is back in Cuba after a recent Miami visit — knew he’d be used in a U.S. political campaign. It appears to be the first time a Cuban dissident appears in an American campaign ad.

“I’m offended that you’re using someone who is fighting in Cuba for political gain,” Curbelo told Garcia during the debate, which was hosted by Pedro Sevcec on A Fondo, his show on WJAN-Channel 41, known as América TeVe. “I would never use a dissident — Cuban, Venezuelan — for my personal benefit.”

“This is a personal hero of mine who wanted to help us, and I’m honored that he did,” Garcia said. “The funniest thing in this campaign is that until the day before yesterday, Mr. Curbelo and his allies were running an ad saying I’m a Communist. Knowing that it’s out of place, that it has nothing to do, that I’m mocking Communism. Now, possibly the most important anti-Communist in the world says, look at Congressman Joe Garcia’s record.”

Fariñas never actually says in the ad that he backs the Democrat’s congressional reelection bid, but the spot nevertheless acts like a political endorsement.

Garcia, who represents the district spanning from Westchester to Key West, supports increased travel and remittances to Cuba. Curbelo, a Miami-Dade County school board member, does not. Garcia likes to highlight that difference because traveling to the island is popular among younger Cuban-American voters. Curbelo prefers to note that he supports tightening the Cuban Adjustment Act while Garcia does not, a position more popular, at least anecdotally, among older Cuban Americans who more reliably go to the polls in midterm elections.

Activist Gus Garcia, no relation, a Democrat who has not endorsed anyone in the congressional race, said Tuesday that he found the ad “inappropriate.”

“The struggle for civil and human rights in Cuba should be above American politics,” he said. “To bring it into American politics is not in good taste.”

Curbelo used the ad as an opening to criticize Garcia’s tenure, more than a decade ago, as executive director of the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, founded by the late Cuban exile Jorge Mas Canosa. CANF founders later created the nonprofit Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, which supports Fariñas and other dissidents — in part with U.S. government grants.

Some Republicans have called the funding political favoritism for the relatively inexperienced nonprofit because Mas Canosa’s heirs have supported President Barack Obama. Fariñas and another dissident met Obama at a Pinecrest fundraiser last year in the home of one of Mas Canosa’s sons, Jorge Mas Santos, a Garcia supporter.

Curbelo blamed Garcia for splintering CANF when he served as its director beginning in 2000. The organization’s hardliners abandoned the group to form the Cuban Liberty Council.

“This used to be the most respected group in Washington. When Mr. Garcia took its reins, it started falling apart,” Curbelo said. “That’s your legacy, Mr. Garcia. You have dedicated yourself to dividing our community.”

Garcia’s CANF tenure had not come up earlier in the campaign. The congressman called the attack “absurd.”

Debate moderator Sevcec then mentioned Curbelo’s former ties to Ariel Pereda, a Miami businessman who facilitates trade with Cuba. Curbelo and Pereda were briefly listed in 2004-05 on the board of a Florida-registered company, PM Strategies LLC, before Curbelo resigned. He said Tuesday the venture was a short-lived advertising business deal that didn’t go anywhere — before Pereda began doing business with Cuba.

“I maintain a cordial relationship with him, though I disagree with his business and I’ve told him so personally,” Curbelo said. “He’s one of Mr. Garcia’s biggest supporters because Mr. Garcia has a different position toward doing business with Cuba.”

Garcia said he supports “selling food to Cuba, because you’re not only feeding dissidents but also somebody’s family, somebody’s mother. That’s Mr. Pereda’s business. The difference is, I say it outright. I don’t represent Mr. Pereda, but he’s my friend.”

“It’s nothing new that everyone who favors doing business with Cuba is financing Mr. Garcia’s campaign,” Curbelo replied.

“The people who support Mr. Curbelo’s campaign are people who oppose Medicare and Social Security, want to reform it to take it away from our seniors, and oppose a minimum wage,” Garcia answered.

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