Fidel Castro is dead and brother Raúl is no longer president of Cuba. But communism can still move the needle in Miami campaigns.
Decades after the Cuban revolution spawned an exodus that reshaped South Florida culture and U.S. politics in the Caribbean, political exiles are declining in number in Miami and leftist angst is fading. But it's far from gone. And under the right conditions and in the right neighborhoods, evoking the tyranny of dictators can still be an effective tactic in manipulating votes and undercutting opponents.
Take the special election to claim an open county commission seat representing Little Havana, where former state senator Alex Diaz de la Portilla is ginning up ties between Communist regimes and his closest competitor in order to scrap his way back to relevancy. Using a political committee, he's raised the specter of the Castros and repressive Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in an attempt to win a seat that pays only $6,000 a year but carries enormous political power.
It's a throwback strategy to the days when Fidel Castro was at the height of his power and the whiff of a connection to Communist Cuba could doom a campaign or a government contractor. And it remains effective in the heart of Miami's exile community, where low-turnout elections are often won and lost on the ballots of elderly Hispanic voters who religiously participate in local elections.
"The issue of communism, the issue of Maduro, it still resonates," said Dario Moreno, an FIU political science professor and veteran pollster of Miami elections. "But every year it’s a smaller part of the population."
A political strategist by trade, Diaz de la Portilla knows this well. With mail-in ballots already being cast in the May 22 election in a district of 95,000 voters, he has attacked his best-known opponent by tying her to an unlikely villain: prominent gas station owner and GOP donor Maximo Alvarez. Mail pieces by Proven Leadership for Miami-Dade County tie the Cuba-born Alvarez to Maduro by claiming his business relies on gas from Citgo, the U.S. subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil corporation. Diaz de la Portilla says that Alvarez's Sunshine Gasoline Distributors is funding a negative shadow campaign against him using Venezuelan "narcotrafficking" money.
Alvarez, who has given at least $1.3 million to state and federal campaigns over the last 25 years, could not be reached for comment. But Nelson Diaz, a longtime lobbyist for Sunshine Gasoline Distributors and chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party, called the allegations "so clearly false as to be comical." Diaz says "Alvarez's life is a rejection of everything that Nicolás Maduro stands for."
Alvarez, who appeared recently in Hialeah with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and President Donald Trump, did give $50,000 in late March to a political committee that has attacked Diaz de la Portilla. But that money wasn't used in this election, according to Alvarez's lobbyist. On the other hand, Alvarez has given money in the past to at least one candidate in the race: Diaz de la Portilla.
"Alex Diaz de la Portilla has never before complained about having Sunshine Gas' support," Nelson Diaz said.
But the political attacks don't rely on accuracy in order to be effective. Rather, they're a dog whistle to hard-line Cuban and Venezuelan voters that his opponent Zoraida Barreiro — the Cuban-American wife of Bruno Barreiro, the county commissioner who resigned from the seat to run for Congress — is unelectable.
"I’ve never called anyone here a communist," said Diaz de la Portilla, who says Alvarez lied to him and others about his reliance on Venezuelan oil. "Whenever you have money from foreign dictators influencing local elections, that’s always a concern. Especially in this community that has so many victims of dictators. We have so many Cubans and Venezuelans who are victims, so to have somebody who’s Cuban and profiting off the sale of Venezuelan oil, that's something that every voter, not only Cuban voters, should be concerned about."
Diaz de la Portilla's allegations against Alvarez have roiled other Republicans, who say he's waging a dirty campaign based on regressive politics. Former Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who came to Miami from Cuba on the Pedro Pan flights of the 1960s, thinks voters won't be convinced that Barreiro — who in an interview recalled arriving in the United States from Cuba at the age of 12 on a fishing boat named “Coral Reef” during the 1980 Mariel boat lift — is financing her campaign through Venezuelan oil.
“The problems in the county are huge and I don’t see what Maduro has to do with a local election, now or ever," Regalado said.
And yet, Regalado is only months removed from watching Diaz de la Portilla use the same tactics in the same community against him and his son.
In his final weeks as Miami mayor, Regalado fumed as Diaz de la Portilla — at the time a consultant for former mayor Joe Carollo — engineered a series of conspiratorial attacks involving the Regalados, the Castros and Venezuela. One hit piece juxtaposed a picture of the mayor and Sean Penn together at a Miami Heat game next to a photo of Penn with Castro, Maduro and Chávez in an attempt to tie the mayor and his son, Tommy, to the hated dictators. Mayor Regalado threatened to sue (he didn't), and an exile group known as the Assembly of Cuban Resistance condemned it as a "defamation" of Regalado's character.
Still, Carollo won the city commission race, resurrecting a political career that had gone down in flames more than 15 years prior. Regalado’s son finished a distant fourth.
Now, Diaz de la Portilla hopes to ride the same tactics back to relevance after losing his last two campaigns and fading further away from his days as Florida Senate majority leader. The district includes liberal Miami Beach. But special elections are notorious for low voter turnout and Moreno, the pollster, says there remains a dedicated group of several thousand elderly Hispanics in Miami who could be swayed by the specter of Castro.
"The people who live here are the victims," Diaz de la Portilla said. "These are the victims of those governments and of course they’re going to be concerned about where the money is coming from. Particularly these districts. This is the heart of Little Havana and the heart of where Cuban Americans live, people who had to leave their country. These are not the children of the victims."
Zoraida Barreiro — one of four candidates in the race along with Diaz de la Portilla, Eileen Higgins and Carlos Garin — calls the play "desperate" and "ludicrous." Diaz de la Portilla is also attacking her over her relationship with Jorge Luis Lopez, a well-connected county lobbyist who represents Odebrecht, the company that built a port in Mariel, Cuba, and has been embroiled in bribery scandals outside of Miami.
Moreno thinks the strategy can still work, regardless of whether it's true. And at the very least, Castro is likely to remain a bogeyman of some Miami campaigns for the near future, Moreno believes, considering that the tactic of tying opponents to communism is so entrenched in Miami that for old-school politicians, "it’s instincts."
"This is what has always worked for them," said Moreno. "That’s what they know best. And it’s not crazy to play that [strategy] in this election. But every election, I think the percentage of voters moved by it is smaller."
Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.