Two weeks after Miami Beach’s mayor and commissioner told Cuban government officials that they would be open to hosting a Cuban consulate, a majority of the full commission voted to formally oppose the idea unless the island nation’s government makes human-rights reforms.
The vote came after an emotionally charged discussion over how some exiles in Miami-Dade County would see a consulate as an insult and others would see it as a convenience.
Dozens of residents and reporters crammed the commission chamber Wednesday morning for the vote on the hot-button issue. Local governments do not have the power to make decisions on where consulates open. That belongs to the U.S. State Department, which has said there are no discussions between the United States and Cuba on the opening of a new consulate in South Florida.
Still, the discussion in the Beach swelled into a bitter debate that drew political lines among commissioners.
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This is not a municipal issue. It’s a regional issue, and we should expected and welcome the dialogue of our all of our regional residents.
Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán, on welcoming opinions from both residents of Miami Beach and the rest of Miami-Dade
The conversation started weeks ago when Mayor Philip Levine and Commissioner Ricky Arriola traveled to Cuba with a group of university students. While in Havana, the pair met with Cuban government officials and said they’d be open to hosting a consulate in Miami Beach.
Before a packed house Wednesday, Grieco’s proposal was set aside indefinitely, but commissioners adopted a similar proposal for the city to formally oppose a consulate “so long as the Cuban government continues its violation of basic freedoms and human rights.” That measure came after the city’s citizen Hispanic Affairs Committee hosted a public discussion on the issue Monday.
Levine took aim at Grieco for the resolution, saying he was being politically opportunistic and criticizing him because he’s not Cuban.
On Wednesday, Grieco responded directly.
“If that was true, I’d need to be gay to support my LGBT brothers and sisters. It would also be saying that only Jews can stand up for our Jewish community, or I would have to be female to fight for our women,” he said. “I find this logic offensive.”
The U.S. State Department says Cuba has not requested the opening of a new consulate.
During 30 minutes of public comment early Wednesday, a mix of opposition and pro-consulate people sounded off on the issue.
Later on, fighting to speak over a largely displeased and vocal crowd, Levine and Arriola reiterated that they want the city to be open-minded about a consulate as relations between the U.S and Cuba continue to thaw.
Levine cited support letters from Carlos Gutierrez, former secretary of commerce for George W. Bush, former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and Paul L. Cejas, a former ambassador to Belgium under Bill Clinton.
In his note, Gutierrez said he was initially critical when President Barack Obama announced his administration would normalize relations with Cuba in December 2014.
“I was very critical and hesitated to believe the Cuban government genuinely wanted to develop better ties with the United States,” he wrote. “To my great privilege, I have had the opportunity to visit Cuba seven times in the past year. During each visit, I talked to countless business owners and regular citizens about what this means for them. Their response has always been positive.”
Arriola called the angst about a possible consulate “premature.” Grieco said the reason the commission was even talking about it was because Levine and Arriola spoke prematurely.
When the dust settled, commissioners John Elizabeth Alemán, Grieco, Micky Steinberg and Kristen Rosen Gonzalez voted to oppose a consulate. Levine, Arriola and Commissioner Joy Malakoff voted against the resolution to oppose a consulate.