Cuba politics maze traps Joe Garcia, Carlos Curbelo

Republican Carlos Curbelo and Democratic Congressman Joe Garcia, candidates for congressional District 26, debated Tuesday night at Miami Dade College Kendall Campus.
Republican Carlos Curbelo and Democratic Congressman Joe Garcia, candidates for congressional District 26, debated Tuesday night at Miami Dade College Kendall Campus. EL Nuevo Herald

They vowed to be different. They’d sound like a new generation of Miami politicians. They’d shift their focus away from foreign policy. They’d care more about the family down the street than the brothers in power 90 miles across the Florida Straits.

Yet the Cuba politics maze trapped them anyway.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia and Republican challenger Carlos Curbelo have spent the precious last few days of their congressional campaigns dissecting an unusual Spanish-language television advertisement by Garcia that stars a prominent Cuban dissident.

Curbelo and other Miami Cuban Americans have accused Garcia of using Guillermo Fariñas for personal political gain and violating an unwritten rule that shields opponents of the island’s Communist regime from internal U.S. politics.

That rule is hardly hard-and-fast. As Florida governor, Republican Jeb Bush once sent a recording of support to a dissident in a Cuban political prison. President Barack Obama met with Fariñas and another opposition leader last year at a Democratic fundraiser in Pinecrest.

Garcia, though, appears to be the first politician to feature a dissident, speaking straight into the camera, in a TV spot. “For decades, Joe Garcia has been a compatriot committed to our fight,” Fariñas tells the camera.

Since the ad began airing Monday, Fariñas has done little to elaborate on what he meant. He told el Nuevo Herald in an interview Thursday that he would have done the same “for any of the members of Congress.”

“All the Cuban-American members of Congress are my friends, I’ve spent time with all of them, because they’re working for a free Cuba. What I’ve felt is support for the opposition in Cuba and for a movement toward democracy,” Fariñas said, adding that he “had nothing to say” about accusations that the Garcia campaign had misused his support.

Later Thursday, when asked by WDFL-18 (Mira TV) host Roberto Rodríguez Tejera whether he had agreed to take part in a political ad, Fariñas refused to answer. Fariñas said his “error” was not knowing he’d get stuck in the middle of a rancorous political campaign, but that if asked again, he’d say the same thing.

“I stand by what I said,” Fariñas added. He said he knows Curbelo less well than Garcia, whom he praised as reasonable on U.S.-Cuba policy.

In a statement released online Wednesday, Fariñas did not deny his role in the ad but noted he didn’t expressly tell anyone for whom to vote. “At no point do I appear soliciting votes for any of the two specific candidates, so it’s clear that I’m not getting involved in the electoral contest,” he said.

As a result, Fariñas insisted, he didn’t technically involve himself in U.S. politics. That’s a stretch, given that the ad is clearly political and plays like an endorsement.

Fariñas, who lives in Cuba, was expected to arrive in Miami late Wednesday from Mexico. Spanish-language reporters waited for him at Miami International Airport to ask whether the online statement was his and whether he’d been in any way duped into participating in the ad. A member of Fariñas’ political organization in Cuba had told a Miami’s WJAN-41 (América TeVe) that Fariñas would not have wanted to be used in a partisan piece. “That’s his opinion,” Fariñas said Thursday.

But Fariñas didn’t show. His flight had apparently gotten in earlier — fueling Republican intrigue that his handlers from the Cuban American National Foundation, many of whom back the Democrat Garcia, had purposely kept Fariñas away from the press. Fariñas denied that Thursday.

In one of several Spanish-language interviews on the subject Wednesday, Garcia told Mira TV host Rick Sánchez that Fariñas reached out to him to offer his help because he shares the congressman’s position in favor of more travel and remittances to the island by Cuban Americans.

“To say that I could manipulate one of the men who has shown the most courage before the Cuban government, who gets beaten every day, who did a hunger strike that freed political prisoners … I think that’s absurd,” Garcia said.

On Thursday, Curbelo’s campaign blamed the congressman for bringing up Cuba and tried to use the controversy over the ad to continue to attack Garcia’s character.

“It’s a shame that this is how he has decided to end his campaign,” Curbelo spokesman Wadi Gaitan said in a statement. “We should be talking about government reforms that will lead to economic prosperity for South Florida families. Instead we are focused on Garcia’s irresponsible and unethical use of a Cuban dissident in a desperate television ad.”

It was Garcia’s ad that brought up Cuba in the final week before the election. It’s Curbelo and his supporters who have kept the issue alive, thinking the Republican could benefit from the flap, if outrage among exile hardliners drives those voters to the polls.

The ad was slated to run in a select few stations through Thursday. But with little other news in the close race, the frenzy over the spot appears likely to continue — regardless of how many voters care about it. The 26th congressional district does not have the Cuban-American majority that other South Florida seats do. It spans from Westchester — a Cuban-American stronghold, to be sure — to Key West, where people embrace far closer ties to Cuba.

And so two sons of Cuban exiles who like to say they’re unlike their predecessors — Garcia, 51, likes to note he turned down a position on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs; Curbelo, 34, calls himself part of a fresh generation that looks at foreign-policy issues “as an American citizen” — have failed in their attempt to stay away from the issue that has engulfed Miami politicians so often that the rest of the country thinks it’s the only subject South Florida cares about.

Just like they said they wouldn’t do.

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