As relations between the U.S. and Cuba continue to change, Miami Beach has emerged as an unexpected flashpoint, while the foreign relations controversy is morphing into a political scuffle among some of the city’s elected officials.
The suggestion that the Beach could welcome a Cuban consulate has drawn passionate responses from both unhappy and supportive Cuban Americans. Mayor Philip Levine and Commissioner Ricky Arriola, who is the son of exiles who emigrated in 1960, sparked the conversation when they traveled to the island nation in late March and expressed their openness to the idea in a private meeting with Cuban government officials.
The U.S. State Department says Cuba has not asked about opening a consulate anywhere. No matter. The issue continues to be discussed in Miami-Dade, where another debate is expected at Wednesday’s Miami Beach City Commission meeting.
Since Levine and Arriola’s trip, anti-consulate protesters have demonstrated outside City Hall. The city’s citizen Hispanic Affairs Committee urged the City Commission to take a formal stance against a consulate after hearing hours of testimony from several detractors and a handful of exiles who want to see it happen.
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Levine has maintained that he wants the city to be more in line with President Barack Obama and his administration’s approach to Cuba. He insisted they only spoke in broad terms about the possibility of a consulate.
“The idea of a consulate — that was never offered us, it was merely a conversation,” he told the Miami Herald. “On a personal level, I would personally welcome the consulate. That conversation is very different from soliciting or being offered a consulate.”
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Levine’s and Arriola’s days in Havana, as part of a Levine-sponsored trip for Tufts University graduate students, were well-publicized and documented. With political adviser Christian Ulvert in tow, Levine shared updates on social media and spoke to the press, boasting that he was the first head of a city in Miami-Dade County to go to Cuba since before the revolution.
Days after returning and holding a press conference to share his support for a Cuban consulate in Miami Beach, he bristled at criticism from exiles in Miami-Dade and said he hadn’t received any complaints. When Commissioner Michael Grieco placed an item on Wednesday’s commission agenda reaffirming the city’s long-standing opposition to having any kind of a relationship with Cuba, Levine called Grieco an opportunist who wants to tee up a run for mayor.
“The only reason this has happened is because you have a commissioner who is trying to use this as a political ploy because he would like to run for mayor, prematurely,” he said. “And he believes he can get the Cuban vote by appealing to their deepest level of fear and insecurity. Which is cruel. Especially when he’s not Cuban.”
On Tuesday, Grieco responded by saying he looked forward to Wednesday’s discussion.
“My motivation in sponsoring the resolution is simply to represent my constituents and give them a voice,” he said. “It is unfortunate that this unnecessary controversy has been thrust upon our city and thousands of our fellow neighbors have been insulted and disregarded in the process. I look forward to a public debate on this issue during the commission meeting.”
Political onlookers have long suspected that Levine, a wealthy businessman who made his fortune in cruise ship media, has his sights set on higher office himself. The mayor has insisted he wishes to remain in the Beach, though he has steadily raised his national profile through the Cuba trip and frequent flights to primary states in recent months, where he has stumped for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. He’s become a regular on cable news talk shows to talk Democratic politics.
Back at Beach City Hall, his colleagues found out about Levine and Arriola’s sit-down with Cuban officials through news media. Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán said she believed a consulate would come with increased security risks and traffic.
“What I think it would do is it would bring divisiveness into our city,” she said. “It’s difficult to imagine any positive impact, but it would certainly bring a negative impact.”
Alemán is co-sponsoring Grieco’s resolution.
In a political sense, we don’t get anything back for Cuban rights.
Elsa Urquiza, a 56-year resident of Miami Beach who is critical of rapprochement and the idea of a local consulate
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department told the Miami Herald there have been no discussions with the Cuban government about establishing additional consulates either in the United States or in Cuba. Foreign governments must get permission from the State Department to open consulates in the U.S.
Since Obama’s first announcement of the normalization of ties with Cuba in December 2014, public opinion appears to be divided along generational lines, with hard-line opinions held by older Cuban Republicans. Politico recently reported the results of a poll of 300 Miami Beach residents on Cuba policy, which included a question on the location of a Cuban consulate. Forty-six percent chose Miami-Dade County, 28 percent said nowhere in Florida, 24 percent didn’t know or refused to answer, and 2 percent said the Tampa Bay area.
The website reported the poll was done by an unnamed corporate client.
Arriola, the Miami-born son of former Miami City Manager Joe Arriola, had traveled to Cuba twice before his recent election to the Beach commission. He will return again in a few weeks as part of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
Citing a personal connection to the issue, he said he feels a consulate in Miami-Dade should at least be discussed in anticipation of increased travel to Cuba and a possible demand for access to the Cuban government from local Cubans who want to go back to visit loved ones.
“What we invited was the essence of the American way, which is the idea to talk and engage,” Arriola told a room full of displeased exiles at Monday night’s Hispanic Affairs Committee meeting. “Just simply to talk.”