Fabiola Santiago

She doesn’t want it known, but Maria Elvira Salazar favors Trump talks with Castro

During her videotaped interview with the Miami Herald’s Editorial Board, in which members of the newsroom like me participated, I asked Republican congressional candidate Maria Elvira Salazar about her position on President Donald Trump’s Cuba policy.

Salazar said she liked that Trump “has changed the rules of the game” and now when people like Madonna want to go to Cuba to celebrate their birthdays, they have to stay in a Cuban home instead of a hotel owned by the Cuban military and buy cigars not from government stores but from the people.

Trump should “do even more,” she said, “and fulfill what he’s promised.”

Should Trump start conversations with Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s newly appointed president, I asked her?

“He shouldn’t talk to Diaz-Canel because he doesn’t reflect anything. We know it was a transfer of title, not a transfer of power.”

After the Q&A, I approached Salazar for a follow-up and she insisted that there was no point in talking to Diaz-Canel “the puppet” when the man in charge was still Communist Party leader Raúl Castro.

Should Trump then talk to Raúl Castro? I asked — and she immediately and unequivocally answered that yes, he should.

“Trump should talk to Raúl Castro. He calls the shots.”

But as soon as she said that, and I made a gesture to write it in my notebook, Salazar, who has been endorsed by the hardline Bay of Pigs veterans group, called out: “That’s off the record!”

I reminded her that, as a former journalist, she knows the rules. It’s not off the record until both parties agree that it is — and no, I told her, the follow-up, as was the Q&A, were most definitely on the record. Her views on Cuba are relevant. In the primary election, she was taken to task by opponents for her one-hour, sometimes painfully ingratiating, interview with Fidel Castro in the 1990s during a visit to the United Nations in New York.

Why does this matter?

Because voters deserve truth from candidates running for office — whatever it is and however the chips may fall when they speak it.

For far too long, Republican Cuban-American political candidates have won public office by equating a vote for them as being a vote for a free Cuba — and, now, for a free Venezuela. The trendy new GOP scare tactic is telling voters that Democrats are going to turn Florida into another Venezuela.

It’s hogwash, a way to avoid addressing real local issues or deflecting from complex topics candidates don’t know much about. Most of all, the tough-on-Cuba strategy saves Republicans from having to pay the political price of controversial GOP platforms and support for Trump.

The district Salazar is seeking to represent, Florida’s 27, supported pro-engagement Hillary Clinton by 20 points in 2016 even as it re-elected Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a moderate when it comes to healthcare and immigration and a Trump critic who is retiring. The first Cuban American in Congress, Ros-Lehtinen has been a consistent hardliner on Cuba. Salazar’s opponent is Democrat Donna Shalala, former University of Miami president, Clinton Cabinet Secretary and healthcare guru, and there’s a third player, independent Mayra Joli, an avowed Trump supporter.

From left: Donna Shalala (D), Maria Elvira Salazar, (R) and Mayra Joli (NPA)

It’s hard to gauge where Salazar really stands on issues because one minute she sounds as Trumpian as they come, then not: Let the “free markets” deliver healthcare, she says. Then she says that you have to have something to replace Obamacare — a big issue in her district, where enrollment is one of the highest in the nation — before you repeal it.

She doesn’t want to call it “a wall” but she supports Trump’s efforts to shut the door. She also isn’t “sure” Dreamers, their parents, and TPS holders should get a pathway to citizenship but she agrees that they should get some kind of legal status. This is her most horrid view, as this would create a cast system of second-class citizens.

“We have to use the nuclear option in Venezuela,” she said at one point, also using the words “topple Venezuela.”

And, at the next sound bite, she sounds like a moderate: The United States shouldn’t be “promoting coups anywhere.”

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Paying lip service to the Cuba-Venezuela issue is how we in Miami-Dade arrived at the point where Cuban Americans — dependent like everyone else on Medicare, Obamacare, and Medicaid benefits for their health and survival — reliably vote for Republicans who want to dismantle those programs.

It gets old.

When are people going to wake up to the lost-homeland manipulation, the right-left games being played in political campaigns? Democrats, Republicans and independents all care about Cuba and Venezuela. Disagreeing on the strategy to foster democratic change in the hemisphere isn’t a sin. Making it one is pure political campaign demagoguery.

She doesn’t want voters to know it, but Maria Elvira Salazar thinks Trump should talk with Raúl Castro.

Nothing wrong with that view — except the deception.

Follow Fabiola Santiago on Twitter, @fabiolasantiago