Politics & Policy

Comradeship in Miami

Last month, just before Christmas, I attended an event in Miami — Greater Miami, I should say. Coral Gables. May I scribble you a few notes about this? This was the annual luncheon of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC. A good portion of Miami’s Cuban-American community, and therefore of the Cuban-American community in general, was there. Much of the Florida political establishment was there. Everyone in the room was greatly concerned that the U.S. be on the right side of Cuban freedom and democracy. This was one of the most moving, emotional, and gratifying political events I have ever been part of.

And I must add this, before going further: The luncheon was, to a great extent, a tribute to Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the Cuban-American Republican who has just retired from Congress. That accounted for much of the emotion in the room.

‐Have you ever been to the Coral Gables Biltmore? If not, put it on your list. This hotel and resort screams Old Florida. You half-expect to see Jackie Gleason emerging, dressed for a round of golf: knickers, tam-o’-shanter. You expect to see gangsters: such as Al Capone, who kept rooms there.

‐There are four Diaz-Balart brothers, one of whom, Mario, continues in Congress. (By the way, for a piece I did on this family, go here.) Lincoln has told me that Mario is a much better politician than he. He’s extremely personable, easygoing, laidback — but, of course, very, very sharp. He knows more about the politics of redistricting than pretty much anybody else. Mario is some combination of surfer dude — or South Beach dude — and Machiavelli.

‐He tells me about an important figure in the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, who’s a Ford dealer in Miami. If I have understood correctly, the man has just opened up a second dealership. This would seem to be unwise in the current environment. But his thinking goes, “If Ford goes under, I go under. If America goes under, I go under. I’m all in.”

As Mario and I observe, this is the kind of person most of the Democratic party thinks of, or portrays, as a fat cat — a Richie Rich. In reality, you’re always about a week away from . . . you know, Kaputsville. Along with your employees.

‐In the banquet hall, there is a tremendous amount of camaraderie, comradeship. This is very unusual, in my experience. The speakers are bipartisan, and they begin with Sen. Robert Menendez, the Cuban-American Democrat from New Jersey. He and Lincoln Diaz-Balart agree on essentially nothing: except Cuba and U.S. Cuba policy. Menendez has come down to say a special goodbye to Lincoln. He will fly back up to Washington immediately: Majority Leader Reid is delaying votes for him.

Menendez gives an impassioned speech, about the importance of standing up for the rights of human beings. He gets to the part where he will pay homage to Lincoln — and can’t go on. Chokes up. Eventually, he makes it through. I have seen fake tears and choking up — including in politics — and I believe I know the difference between the real and the false. Menendez has shown the former.

‐Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is another Democrat at the rostrum. Like Menendez, she knocks ’em dead, with a tough, spirited speech. Wasserman Schultz is a Florida politician. But I understand she has no Cuban Americans in her district. She supports this cause from the heart. One of my colleagues reminds me that Wasserman Schultz may have her eye on future statewide office. Oh, yeah. Hang on, I’m having a cynical moment. I’ll wait till it passes . . .

Anyway, Wasserman Schultz appears foursquare. Gratitude for her is natural.

‐Years ago, some of us were trying to think of Democrats who stuck up for oppressed Cubans, yearning to breathe free. The list was Tom Lantos (of course), Eliot Engel, Gary Ackerman . . . and then it was hard to go on.

‐Lincoln Diaz-Balart looks at a lady — a stalwart of this group — and says, “She’s been a Republican for a long time. She was a Republican when the rest of us were Democrats.” Lincoln became a Republican because of Reagan and the Reagan experience. (So did I.) He thought a lot of Jeane Kirkpatrick — shared a worldview with her. (So did I.) He also says that Chris Dodd helped to make him a Republican. Reagan and Dodd — the two politicians who did most to make Lincoln Diaz-Balart a Republican. You remember how disgusting Dodd was, in his defense of Latin American leftists? That Connecticut Democrat, and Democrats like him, made the party of FDR, Truman, and JFK far, far less attractive to the likes of Lincoln Diaz-Balart (and me).

‐Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, Republican of Michigan, is a piece of work. Have you ever run across him? Mario Diaz-Balart introduces me to him. I say, “Oh, hi, congressman, I’m from Ann Arbor.” Deadpan, he says, “I’m sorry to hear that.” McCotter may remind you of an undertaker. He has a funereal aspect. He may be the least political personality I have ever met in politics — the politician who is least like a politician. Someone tells me that President Bush (43) referred to him as “The Anti-Candidate.”

So, McCotter gets to the podium. And kills, absolutely kills. He is loaded with charisma. No wonder he has succeeded in politics. His speech is nothing less than gripping. He speaks in a quiet voice, making everyone kind of lean in. And he has the room spellbound. Frankly, this is one of the most effective short speeches I have ever heard.

And he has a funny line, which I imagine has served him well: “I’m Irish, I’m Catholic, I’m seldom optimistic . . .”

‐Rep. Peter Roskam, Republican of Illinois, is another charismatic politician, though in a more conventional way. (Who wouldn’t be?) He gives a highly entertaining and deft speech, in which he describes how the Diaz-Balart brothers worked on you, when you entered Congress. They wanted to be sure you knew what was what where Cuba policy was concerned. “I had barely found my office when these guys came around, turning on the high beams of Cuban charm.”

‐Kendrick Meek gives a nice, warm, humorous speech. He seems like a very friendly guy. He was the congressman who gave up his seat to run for the Senate, as the Democratic nominee, and lost to Marco Rubio. He says, “Lincoln and I are doing a Thelma & Louise together.” (Remember how they drove off the cliff?) He also says that, over the years, he has been moved and inspired by stories that the Cuban exiles, and their children, have told.

‐Speaking of children of Cuban exiles: Rubio has his own turn at the podium. He notes that he and Meek spent a lot of time together, in the last year and a half — and “usually we were wearing makeup.” A funny, clever line. Rubio talks about Meek’s integrity as a politician: One kind of politician runs for office and figures out what he believes, or what he should say, as he goes; another kind figures out what he believes, and then runs for office. Rubio says that Meek is a man of solid and sincere views, saying what he believes, letting the chips fall where they may. The senator-elect gives a thoughtful and gracious speech. It’s, of course, easy to be gracious, when you’re the winner. But still . . .

Meek and Rubio, the two of them, seem like very civilized opponents. Kind of a shame, really, that Crist muddied that race. Oh, well . . .

‐Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is another Cuban-American Republican from Miami, and the new chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee. She is full of pep, a sparkler of a woman, and, when it’s her turn, she runs up onto the stage. Likability is a key factor in politics. Ileana has that out the ears. What’s more, she has superbly sound views, à la Kirkpatrick. When she’s finished with her talk — half Spanish, half English — she embraces Lincoln and says, “Mi hermano, te quiero.”

‐Lincoln is, of course, the final speaker. He says that, for Cuba, there are “two possible destinies” — one of freedom and democracy, the other of continued dictatorship. And he has a message for the Cuban armed forces — an actual written message, which he reads. The crux of it is this: If you repudiate the Castros, anything is possible. If you stick with them, nothing is possible. And if you pull a Tiananmen Square — if you do what Chinese forces did in 1989 — the Cuban people will never forgive you.

‐Below, I will print my introduction of Lincoln — a version of it. Then I will have one more quick note, and go. Okay, here’s that introduction (for those interested):

“. . . I imagine that some of you, or many of you, knew Lincoln’s father, Rafael. He said of his boys that they were ‘100 percent American and 100 percent Cuban.’ In math, that makes no sense. But, in the lives of the Diaz-Balarts, it makes perfect sense. You could say that Lincoln has a dual loyalty — I’m sure people have. But, as I see it, he has a single loyalty: to human freedom and dignity.

“He doesn’t care where you live: whether in America, or Cuba, or China, or Syria. He supports your right to live in freedom and dignity, to fulfill your potential, as God intended.

“Lincoln has stood for important things in Congress. I don’t live in his district, and I’ve never lived in Florida. But I feel he has represented me. And I know that many would say the same.

“I can say what some of you can’t say, or might hesitate to say: Anglo America can get lazy, smug, and stupid. Lincoln Diaz-Balart has reminded us of core principles and values — principles and values on which we all depend, whether we know it or not. He is kind of a keeper of the American flame, and of the Western flame.

“In the last couple of years, some have thought that the ‘special relationship,’ as it’s known, has suffered: the special relationship between the U.S. and Britain. Last May, Lincoln sponsored a resolution affirming this relationship, and explaining its history and purpose. I thought, ‘Isn’t that typical? It takes a Cuban-born congressman to stick up for the Anglo-Saxon inheritance.’

“As a politician, and a good one, he is flexible, not rigid. Politics is no place for ideologues. And Lincoln has done very well. But he is unyielding where he should be: on human rights, most prominently. He has named the names of political prisoners on the floor of the U.S. House. Dictatorships want their prisoners to be forgotten; prisoners want nothing more than to be remembered.

“You know who else named names? Jeane Kirkpatrick, a thinker with whom Lincoln was in complete accord. She would name the names of political prisoners on the floor of the U.N. Sometime after her tenure, she visited the Soviet Union, with a delegation. The Soviet Union was then in its dying days. Kirkpatrick and her party went to see Sakharov. He came down the stairs of his apartment building, into the lobby, which was dimly lit. You know how buildings under Communism are. He said, ‘Kirkpatski, Kirkpatski, which of you is Kirkpatski?’ They gestured to Jeane. And he said, ‘Your name is known in every cell in the Gulag.’ That’s because she had spoken their names.

“Sakharov, in his Nobel lecture of 1975, named the names of political prisoners. He was not present in Oslo to give that lecture; the Soviet dictatorship would not let him out. But his wife was there, and she read the lecture for him. At one point, he simply recited the names of political prisoners — about a hundred of them. Just rattled off their names. This gave a lift to the men and women in the camps and cells.

“About ten years ago, I talked on the phone with a Cuban political prisoner on the lam. His name was René Montes de Oca Martija. Shortly after we talked, he was recaptured. I’m not sure where he is now. At the end of our conversation, I asked him whether he had anything else to say. He said yes — he wanted to thank and bless all of those who had remembered him in public forums: Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and others. . . .

“Lincoln Diaz-Balart has a lot to offer, in Congress or not. I look forward to seeing what he’ll do next. I know we’re not supposed to say that anybody from Miami should have anything to do with post-Communist Cuba. There are people who hate the idea of Miami Republicans in Cuba more than they hate the dictatorship itself. This is a sad comment on America. But I know that Lincoln will not rest until an island that was swallowed up by tyranny can breathe again.

“He had a lot to live up to, being named after the greatest man in American history. He has worn that name well. I’m grateful for all he has done. He is one of the best friends we’ll ever have in public life. . . .”

‐Later on, a mother and daughter introduced themselves to me. The daughter was 19, I believe — and knew a grandson of Jeane Kirkpatrick, the same age, I believe. The daughter was pleased that I had talked about Kirkpatrick, and the mother was, too. Someone had said to the grandson that his grandmother was a terrorist. That was the word: “terrorist.” I said that she had dedicated most of her professional life to opposing tyranny, terror, repression, unfreedom.

Bill Buckley said she “ought to be woven into the flag as the 51st star.” Kirkpatrick told me, “That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me.” I said, “That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said about anyone.”

I’m going to give you another installment on Miami — just light stuff. See you!




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