Colombian Democrat defends comment blasting ‘Cuban Republican’ officials as hypocritical

Rep. Cindy Polo, D-Miramar, criticized Cuban Republicans for their stance on immigration and President Donald Trump.
Rep. Cindy Polo, D-Miramar, criticized Cuban Republicans for their stance on immigration and President Donald Trump. Tampa Bay Times

A swing through Miami by the president of Colombia exposed complicated partisan divisions among South Florida’s Hispanic politicians over the weekend after snubbed Colombian-American Democrats blasted Cuban-American Republicans invited to fete the foreign leader.

On offense: an outspoken Democratic freshman state lawmaker and the top administrator of the state party.

On defense: the Republican mayor of Miami-Dade County and former members of Congress.

And caught in between: Colombian President Iván Duque and a slew of politicians confused about how a dinner for a foreign dignitary became the source of such division.

The drama began Friday evening, when the Colombian embassy hosted a private reception for Duque at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. The event was followed Saturday by a gathering at Florida International University in honor of Duque, who stopped in South Florida after participating in the United Nations conference in New York.

Both gatherings went smoothly, according to attendees and press coverage. But afterward, Colombian-American state Rep. Cindy Polo — who was not invited to Friday’s dinner and was overlooked during the Saturday gathering when other local politicians in the audience were publicly acknowledged — took to Twitter to express her frustration.

On Saturday, she posted a picture of the mayors of Miami and Miami-Dade County, and several former members of Congress smiling while at the Biltmore, joking that her “invite got lost in the mail.” Then she blasted “Cuban Republican” leaders in attendance.

“It’s not about me being recognized or not. It’s that once again Republicans jump into the photo ops and become the face to the Latino communities,” she tweeted Saturday. “But when it really matters, when it really counts, they turn their backs on immigrants like COLOMBIANS and VENEZUELANS NICARAGUANS HONDURANS etc … To watch CUBAN REPUBLICAN OFFICIALS standing next to @IvanDuque gives a very false narrative — one that Latinos are falling for.”

Polo’s comment was aimed at those Cuban-American Republicans who support President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown but still showed up at the event with the president of Colombia. Roughly 1 million Colombians and Colombian Americans live in the United States. She represents a majority-Hispanic state House district that includes northwest Miami-Dade and southwest Broward counties.

Polo’s barbs were quickly condemned by Republicans — and questioned by at least one influential Democrat.

The Miami Young Republicans, led by conservative Cuban Americans, called her tweets a “bizarre rant” and demanded an apology. Republican former Congressman Carlos Curbelo, who attended Friday’s dinner for Duque, said he’s never met Polo but was nevertheless disappointed by her tweets.

“If you have a problem with someone, it should be based on their ideas and not their ethnicity,” he told the Miami Herald.

Polo’s comments also drew rebuke from Florida House Speaker José Oliva, himself a Cuban Republican, and caught Democratic House leader Kionne McGhee off guard.

“She used those words?” McGhee said when asked if he’d seen Polo’s tweets about “Cuban Republicans.”

Polo said Monday that she stands by her comments. And her sentiments were backed by the Florida Democratic Party’s top administrator, who was also frustrated at being left out of the weekend’s events.

“We’ve given Hispanic Republicans in Miami a pass because they’re ‘moderate.’ But they vote to sell out our communities not only on immigration but on climate and jobs and healthcare. And then they show up for the photo ops,” said Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Juan Peñalosa, who like Polo is Colombian American.

Polo’s comments — which she said were based on her belief that Republican Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez controlled the guest lists of both events — landed at a time when Miami’s knotty political landscape is changing. New waves of immigration have created an increasingly diverse Hispanic diaspora in Miami, altering the power structure.

Miami’s Cuban-American politicians remain a force in Florida, where they occupy the offices of U.S. Senate, House speaker, lieutenant governor, mayor of Miami-Dade County and mayor of the city of Miami. But an influx of left-leaning immigrants from other parts of Latin America is shifting the dynamics, with Hispanic Democrats slowly flipping Republican seats in Congress and the state Legislature.

Still, Polo’s frustration over her snubs may have been wrongly aimed.

According to attendees and spokespersons for FIU and Gimenez’s office, the events at the Biltmore and the university were organized by the Colombian embassy. A spokeswoman for Gimenez said his office “assisted” in creating the guest list for Saturday’s gathering at FIU. The embassy did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Gimenez apologized on Twitter for neglecting to mention Polo Saturday when he acknowledged other local officials in the audience. But on Monday, the Republican mayor, who is considering a run for Congress, tried to distance himself from the spat, responding to an inquiry about Polo’s comments about “Cuban Republican” leaders by saying “I don’t get involved in partisan politics.”

Polo’s comments also embarrassed some of her Democratic colleagues and drew condemnation from Cuban Republicans. Giancarlo Sopo, a former congressional aide to Cuban Democrat Joe Garcia who recently renounced his Democratic Party registration, tweeted that Polo had “invoked ethnicity, dashed it with next-level chusmeria on top, and turned it into an ethnic skirmish that’s completely unnecessary in Miami.”

Chusmeria translates roughly to “trash talk.”

Oliva, a Cuban Republican whose northwest Miami-Dade legislative district borders Polo’s, said he has not spoken to Polo about her tweets. But he said the Democrat “relies on bombast and manufactured indignation as a substitute for facts and an ability to defend her beliefs.”

“Rep. Polo’s comments were consistent with her service so far,” he wrote in a text message. “Where a sound argument fails her she simply adds volume. She strikes me as the very dysfunction she claims to seek to repair.”

In an interview, Polo said she took to Twitter after staffers for the county and the university told her Saturday that they were instructed to keep the events private until the weekend was near due to arguments over the guest list. She also said it was important to call out conservative Cuban-American Republican politicians for pushing hard-line immigration policies.

“It is petty to be pro-Colombia when it’s a dinner at the Biltmore but not when you need to speak up for Colombians tied up in the immigration process,” said Polo, whose husband is Cuban. “Anybody who thinks calling them to the carpet is petty obviously doesn’t have context of what Miami-Dade is and what it centers around.”