David Rivera, Joe Garcia debate on national Spanish-language television

U.S. Rep. David Rivera and challenger Joe Garcia engaged in a nationally televised, informal debate on Spanish-language television Sunday — the rivals’ most high-profile appearance in the closely watched congressional race.

Rivera, a Republican, and Garcia, a Democrat, touched on Cuba, immigration and Rivera’s ongoing federal investigation woes on Univision’s Al Punto (To the Point) with Jorge Ramos, who was accompanied by local WLTV-Univision 23 affiliate reporter Mario Andrés Moreno.

The debate, which lasted less than 20 minutes, was hardly long enough for the two rivals — who also ran against each other in 2010 — to delve into issues important to Congressional District 26, which extends from Kendall to Key West.

They got into the most detail on Cuba, an issue Rivera has pushed on the campaign trail to rally his base of hard-line, older Cuban-American voters. Rivera decried Cuban Americans who benefit from U.S. social programs and then return to the island to spend that money.

“I think that is in abuse, that these people are receiving these benefits and are traveling subsidizing a terrorist country with those benefits,” he said.

Earlier this year, Rivera filed legislation in Congress that would amend the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act to sanction Cuban Americans who return to the island before they obtain their U.S. citizenship, which generally takes up to five years. The decades old law allows Cubans to obtain U.S. residency a year and a day after they arrive in the U.S. — a benefit offered to citizens of no other country.

Garcia said he and Rivera both oppose the Castro regime in Cuba and support the U.S. trade embargo toward the island — a key question not only for Cuban-American voters in the Southwest Miami-Dade portion of the district but also for more moderate voters in the Florida Keys, many of whom favor lifting the embargo.

The difference between the two candidates’ positions, Garcia said, is that, unlike Rivera, he favors the Obama administration’s policy to allow more travel and remittances to Cuba.

Garcia also praised the move by Raúl Castro’s government last week to drop exit permits for citizens traveling abroad, and to allow Cubans to spend two years — instead of 11 months — abroad before they lose benefits on the island such as health care.

“It’s something the Cuban people have wanted for half a century,” Garcia said, adding that he doesn’t think the new policy would lead to a mass exodus of Cubans. He warned that it remains to be seen how the new policy works in practice.

Rivera said the new policy doesn’t represent any significant change, since the government will still have the power to deny exit permits. The crucial detail, he added, is that Cubans will be allowed to stay abroad longer — a change Rivera said is intended to allow more Cubans to benefit from the Cuban Adjustment Act.

When the debate pivoted to immigration, Garcia said he backs comprehensive reform and the DREAM Act, which would allow young people brought into the U.S. illegally by their parents with a path to citizenship. Moreno, the local Univision reporter, then turned to Rivera.

“Congressman, you were against the DREAM Act all along,” Moreno said.

“No, incorrect,” Rivera answered, to Moreno’s surprise.

Rivera, long known as a cunning political strategist, has been careful to parse his words when speaking about the DREAM Act. He may have never actually said that he opposes it. But he has also not supported it.

Rivera touted his own DREAM Act-lite proposals that would allow young people who immigrated illegally as children to remain in the country if they serve in the military or if they graduate for college — though without a path to citizenship.

Countered Garcia: “There are 118 co-sponsors of the DREAM Act. Mr. Rivera isn’t one of them.”

It was not the only time Sunday that Rivera chose his words carefully.

When Moreno asked about a pair of federal investigations involving Rivera, the congressman repeated a line he has used frequently over the past two years.

“No federal agency at any time has said I’m under investigation for anything,” Rivera said.

Moreno noted that Univision had spoken to John Borrero of Rapid Mail & Computer Services, who confirmed he has spoken to the FBI as a witness in one of the investigations.

“He’s not the FBI,” Rivera responded.

Borrero has said Rivera helped direct a $7,800 cash payment for a mailer put out by the campaign of Justin Lamar Sternad, who ran in the Democratic primary against Garcia. The FBI is investigating whether Rivera illegally funneled secret money to Sternad.

State records have also shown that federal authorities were investigating Rivera’s personal and campaign finances in a separate probe as late as last year triggered by a secret $500,000 dog-track payment the congressman had arranged.

In March, Rivera told Ramos in an interview that he had no knowledge of any investigations against him. By April, the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office had closed its state investigation into Rivera’s finances without filing any of the 52 charges drafted against him. Records show an attorney for Rivera had been negotiating with prosecutors for several months.

On Sunday, Rivera tried to turn the tables against Garcia, repeating unfounded allegations that Garcia is under investigation by the Federal Election Commission for campaign finance violations. The FEC has said no such probe exists; both Rivera and Garcia have received FEC letters flagging financial reporting incidents that do not amount to an “investigation.”

“It’s a fantasy,” Garcia said. “I understand Mr. Rivera’s desperation.”