Fabiola Santiago

Cuban Americans in Congress need to stop wrapping themselves in the Cuban flag

U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart speaks to the editorial board at the Miami Herald on Oct. 12, 2016.
U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart speaks to the editorial board at the Miami Herald on Oct. 12, 2016. Miami Herald

If it’s true that U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart tried to trade his vote for “Trumpcare” for a commitment from the administration to take a tough stance on Cuba, then the obsession of Cuban Americans in Congress with U.S.-Cuba policy has hit a new low.

Voting for the American Health Care Act is going against the interests of all who need affordable health insurance in South Florida — and Diaz-Balart’s district has the fourth highest number of Obamacare marketplace enrollees in the country.

Forcing Trump’s hand to act recklessly on Cuba at a time when dictator Raúl Castro is winding up his role — and would love nothing better than for the United States to hand him a reason to stay in power — is also a terrible move.

And so, on healthcare and Cuba, the Republican congressman does double disservice to his constituents.

Diaz-Balart has denied that there was any explicit quid pro quo, but this much is true:

Diaz-Balart — whose aunt married Fidel Castro and gave him his first-born son, Fidelito, and whose father, Rafael, was Under Secretary of the Interior under Batista and an anti-Castro activist in exile — has taken it upon himself to push for an overturn of President Barack Obama’s opening to Cuba.

No doubt the Diaz-Balart family history plays a major role in the congressman’s overwhelming desire to rid the island of the Castros. But Diaz-Balart also sees in the Trump administration the opportunity to settle another score: President Obama sidelined the Cuban American hard-liners in Congress, and did not consult them when he launched his Cuba policy.

They were as surprised on Dec. 17, 2014, as the rest of us.

But need I remind anyone that, before Obama, Cuban-American lawmakers had been in public office for decades — and hadn’t been able to overthrow the Castro regime from Washington, D.C., with tough sanctions and tough talk?

This much is also true: Diaz-Balart cast the tie-breaking vote last week in the Budget Committee to approve the AHCA bill and bring it to a full House vote.

All the while, Diaz-Balart was saying that he was on the fence about the bill because he’s worried about older people being able to afford insurance. But he voted yes. (AHCA, however, has so many problems — 14 million would lose health insurance in its first year alone — that it was pulled Thursday and again Friday to spare Trump the embarrassment of the Republican-dominated House voting against it).

All the while, Diaz-Balart — enjoying the courtship of the White House and GOP leaders on account of his “lean no” stance — was circulating a memo of his vision for a Trump policy toward Cuba that would eliminate the Obama guidance to federal agencies on normalizing relations with Cuba and set up terms for Cuba to comply with — or else.

Cuba would have 90 days to instantly turn into a democratic panacea by scheduling free, multiparty elections that respect political and civil rights, and would have to show “demonstrable progress” in returning properties confiscated from Americans or compensating them for the loss.

Sure, like we’re all gullible enough to believe that a 58-year-dictatorship with supporters on the island will rush to comply with Diaz-Balart’s demands. Sure, because the Republicans dying to do business in Cuba are going to drop national priorities to craft a regressive Cuba policy that has no shot at success. Especially when one of those Republicans is President Trump, who at one point had architectural renderings for a Havana Trump Tower in hand, a former Trump attorney told me. Especially when Sonny Perdue, the former Georgia governor and Trump nominee for Agriculture Secretary, at his confirmation hearing Thursday repeated his commitment to promote agricultural trade with Cuba and urged lawmakers to ease financing for Cuba — meaning lift the embargo.

Except for some campaign rhetoric in Miami, the Trump administration has made no commitments on how to proceed with Cuba.

All Trump has said in a tweet is that he wants to negotiate “a better deal.” And we know by now how much his tweets are worth. He uses them to manipulate and obfuscate, and to boost his fragile ego.

His campaign promises aren’t faring any better.

Trump promised to replace Obama’s Affordable Care Act with reform that would cover everyone, lower costs, and not cut Medicare and Medicaid. The GOP bill he embraced as his own does the opposite and particularly hurts all older people. Only the very wealthy are spared. Even some of Trump’s working-class supporters see AHCA as a betrayal. Diaz-Balart should have never voted it out of committee.

We care about Cuba in South Florida, but really, it’s high time for Cuban Americans in Congress to stop wrapping themselves in the Cuban flag at every turn and pay more attention to their constituents’ welfare.

That’s what voters from Key West to Clewiston sent them to Washington to do.

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