Diaz-Balart praised as he retires

As his closest allies toasted the end of his congressional career Monday, outgoing Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart stayed true to form, urging Cuba's military to help the island's people free their country from Fidel and Raúl Castro.

Diaz-Balart, a passionate crusader for a democratic Cuba during his nearly two decades in Congress, was honored at the annual luncheon of the influential U.S. Cuba Democracy political action committee, the leading lobby in support of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

The estimated 600 people at the luncheon, held at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables and attended by politicians and business people, also celebrated getting through the last two years without any significant change in U.S. economic and travel policy toward the communist island.

Advocates of more engagement with Cuba had hoped to lift the travel ban with a more sympathetic president and a Democratic-controlled House, but those efforts fell short. President Barack Obama did lift some restrictions on travel for Cuban Americans, but an outright repeal of the travel ban stalled amid opposition from the PAC, headed by Mauricio Claver-Carone.

"We survived the last two years," said Diaz-Balart, lowering his voice for dramatic effect to barely above a whisper as he spoke into the microphone. "We succeeded."

Then the congressman, a Miami Republican, made reference to the 1989 Chinese military massacre of dissidents in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

"I have a message, a very brief message, for the armed forces of Cuba," he said. ‘‘Help the Cubans free themselves from the Castro brothers. If you help with the transition to democracy, you will enjoy the role that all armed forces should have in a democratic society . . . and not the guaranteed repudiation of a Tiananmen."

Stepping down after 18 years in the House, Diaz-Balart vowed to remain active in Cuba causes, though he did not divulge specifics. He received the most applause at the luncheon when he mentioned his work to codify the embargo from an executive, presidential order to more permanent law.

Diaz-Balart was praised by a parade of Republican politicians, including his brother, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan, Florida Sen.-elect Marco Rubio, Rep.-elect David Rivera of Miami and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, the incoming chairwoman of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee.

There were Democrats on hand, too -- all strong backers of the embargo: Sen. Bob Menendez and Rep. Albio Sires, both of New Jersey; Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston and outgoing Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami Gardens, who lost a three-way Senate race to Rubio.

"I'm glad Lincoln and I are doing a Thelma and Louise together," Meek quipped.

Other Diaz-Balart friends in Congress who are not of Cuban descent praised the congressman for teaching them about conditions on the island -- and persuading them to back the embargo and travel ban.

Rep. Peter Roskam, an Illinois Republican, said he had never had to take a position on U.S. policy toward Cuba when he campaigned in his suburban Chicago district.

"I didn't realize the tag-team action these guys do on new members of Congress," Roskam said, calling Diaz-Balart and his colleagues "closers'' who employ "the Cuban high beams of charm."