Challenge of embargo not a sure loss
By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
MIAMI -- Some call it courageous. Others say it's a calculated gamble.
For the first time in South Florida political history, a Cuban-American candidate for Congress is challenging the United States' embargo against Cuba.
Even more surprising: Polls show the candidate, Annie Betancourt, is not out of the running. In fact, what once would have been considered political suicide in South Florida is barely making waves.
"This is the first political coming-out for a Cuban-American candidate," said Damian Fernandez, a Cuba scholar at Florida International University. "Annie gets the prize for being the first one."
The contest is playing out in District 25, one of two new Florida congressional seats created after the 2000 census.
In a district where 50 percent of registered voters are Hispanic, including a large number of Cuban-Americans, the election appeared to be tailor-made for the Republican candidate, state Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.
So much so, there was early speculation that no one would dare challenge him for the seat.
A rising star in the South Florida Republican party, Diaz-Balart, 41, led the Congressional Redistricting Committee in Tallahassee that drew up the boundary lines for the district. If elected, Diaz-Balart would be South Florida's third Cuban-American member of Congress, joining his older brother Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros Lehtinen.
The odds appear to favor Diaz-Balart. The district straddles the Everglades to include a Republican-leaning area of Collier County east of Naples. The other 89 percent of voters are in Miami-Dade County. Almost 42 percent of the 276,000 registered voters are Republican, versus 34.7 percent Democrats.
When Betancourt, 55, stepped forward, few gave her a chance. Despite a strong record of public service and deep roots in the Cuban-American community -- her husband was a Bay of Pigs veteran -- Betancourt was considered too mild-mannered to shake up the campaign.
That's when she dropped her bombshell. In an open letter addressed to the Miami Herald, Betancourt described U.S. Cuba policy as having "failed miserably." If elected, she said, "I will not be afraid to take the first steps to make a change to this policy by considering different options."
She went on: "The current outdated policy has only served to isolate the Cuban people, and (has) given the Castro regime an excuse for their failed economic policies."
Until recently, such a statement was regarded as heresy in Cuban Miami; the sort of comment that in the past resulted in public insults, death threats and Molotov cocktails.
But to many people's surprise it made little stir.
At a debate last week at WQBA radio, one of Miami's top Spanish-language news stations, Diaz-Balart argued his case for the embargo. "This is not the time to be opening up and sending credits or any sort of funding (for Cuba)," he said, noting that the island is on a U.S. list of seven countries accused of sponsoring terrorism.
But he had no harsh words for Betancourt. Instead, the pair spent most of the 45-minute program sparring over issues such as education and health costs.
Off the air, Diaz-Balart was more rankled. He suggested Betancourt was seeking to cash in on a national campaign to lift the embargo backed by major U.S. business interests looking to open new markets in Cuba.
To be sure, Betancourt has won national endorsements from anti-embargo groups. But analysts recognize the change in public opinion also extends to Cuban-Americans.
"This is the tip of the iceberg," said Fernandez, who argues many Cuban exiles are secretly rethinking their views on how to deal with Cuba. "It was only a matter of time before someone made this hidden transcript public."
Betancourt says she has suffered no personal attacks as a result of her letter. Instead, the reaction has mostly been "applause, applause, applause," she said.
Betancourt is also getting support from some political heavyweights in the Cuban-American community. Among them is Raul Martinez, the charismatic mayor of Hialeah, the most heavily Cuban city in Miami-Dade county.
Martinez, who is a Democrat, has also come out of the closet on Cuba.
"We need to be honest with ourselves. The policy has failed and it needs to be re-examined," he said, adding that he has no objection to lifting the restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba.
On a tactical level, analysts say Betancourt stands to lose nothing by her declarations about Cuba policy. Cuban-American hardline voters were likely to back Diaz-Balart anyway.
The amicable nature of the campaign is also a reflection of Miami's changing demographics. While District 25 is heavily Hispanic, its ethnic and social makeup is less Cuban-American and more middle class than the districts represented by Diaz-Balart's brother and Ros Lehtinen.
"This is not Lincoln or Ileana's district," said Dario Moreno, director of the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University. "It's not fraught with emotion about Cuba. This is the next generation."
While 50 percent of voters describe themselves as Hispanic, only 40 percent say they speak Spanish as their first language, suggesting a younger, more assimilated community.
Many are non-Cuban immigrants, including newer arrivals from Central and South America who tend to be less Republican-leaning than Cuban-Americans.
That could bode well for Betancourt. While Republicans hold the advantage among registered voters, 23 percent say they are independent. More than 54 percent of all voters are women.
Even so, one recent poll showed Diaz-Balart with a lead of 11 points. Republicans say it's closer to 20 points.
Democrats counter that Betancourt suffered an early handicap due to a lack of name recognition.
A former social worker and adult education specialist who was born in Cuba, Betancourt went into politics after surviving breast cancer and losing her husband to illness in 1984.
She served eight years as a state representative for southwest Miami, where she lives and which is also part of the new congressional district.
She enjoys pointing out to voters that while Diaz-Balart helped draw up the district, he does not live in it.
But analysts say Diaz-Balart's impressive record as a state legislator since 1988 in both the House and Senate makes him tough to beat.
"His only negatives are that this (district) looks like it's been inherited," said Moreno, who is a Diaz-Balart fan. "He has the same problem as the Bushes and the Kennedys. Did he really earn it?"
Diaz-Balart says he had no idea a new district would open up in South Florida when he took on the chairmanship of the redistricting committee.
"We knew Central Florida would get one more seat," he said. The addition of another seat in South Florida "was a huge surprise," he added.
Heading into the final stretch, Diaz-Balart has another big advantage. His campaign has raised almost $800,000. By the end of last month Betancourt had raised only $115,000, and reported only $9,000 in the bank, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Analysts say the Democratic party has so far put few resources into her campaign, suggesting the party doesn't fancy her chances. Without a major injection of cash, analysts doubt she can pick up enough momentum.
"She has very tough sledding ahead of her," Moreno said.
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