Politics & Government

Florida Rep. Diaz-Balart's legacy may be defined by Cuba

In 18 years as a congressman, Lincoln Diaz-Balart sat on the powerful House rules committee, championed citizenship for undocumented college students and brought home dollars for South Florida institutions. But his defining cause was always Cuba.

The Miami Republican's decision to leave office at the end of the year comes as advocates for easing the Cuban embargo suggest they have their best shot at success in years. But observers said Thursday that although Diaz-Balart's forceful, decades-long advocacy of a hard line against Cuba will be difficult to match, his efforts will endure.

"Lincoln is the senior statesmen, he helped create the policy, but there are a lot of people working to keep it," said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of a leading pro-embargo lobby, the U.S. Cuba Democracy political action committee. "You can't minimize what a vocal, important figure he is in regards to U.S.-Cuba policy, but the policy will not retire with him."

And Claver-Carone noted that unlike in Cuba -- where Fidel and Raul Castro have kept a tight rein on power for more than five decades -- Diaz-Balart's retirement "opens the door for a new generation of Cuban Americans."

His decision could affect the political fortunes of several Republican Cuban-American state legislators who share Diaz-Balart's politics, if not the fiery rhetoric of the Cuban-born politician.

Still, Diaz-Balart's retirement does signal the end of an era, said Daniel Erikson, the author of The Cuba Wars. Diaz-Balart, 55, is the second high-ranking Cuban-American politician to leave Washington in the last year. Florida Sen. Mel Martinez gave up his seat last year to return to the private sector. Erikson noted that Diaz-Balart's chief opponents in the Senate, Democrats Chris Dodd and Bryon Dorgan -- who want to lift the embargo -- also announced plans to retire in 2010.

Few lawmakers, Erikson said, share Diaz-Balart's "single-minded passion."

"He has really kept a laser-like focus on this issue for close to two decades in a manner that is less nuanced and more sustained than any of his other colleagues in Congress," Erikson said.

Diaz-Balart himself said Thursday that "the bipartisan team working for Cuba's freedom from within the U.S. Congress is . . . functioning more effectively than ever."

Those who might follow in his footsteps acknowledge that his influence will be hard to duplicate.

"No one is going to have his legislative experience or clout," said state Senate Majority Leader Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, a possible candidate for the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. Mario Diaz-Balart announced Thursday he is running for his brother's more Republican-friendly seat.

"It's a system based on seniority and his advocacy has really allowed us to do everything we can to impose sanctions on Cuba," Diaz de la Portilla said.

Diaz-Balart's tactics extended beyond routine legislative maneuvers: In 1995, he was arrested outside the White House while protesting President Clinton's Cuba policy. And just a year after his 1992 election to Congress, he retaliated against a lawmaker who cut Radio and TV Marti's budget, slashing millions of dollars from a project in the Colorado lawmaker's district.

Sarah Stephens, a leading advocate of lifting the ban against travel to Cuba, called it "hard to mourn the retirement of such a virulent and effective Cold warrior," but said she hoped for a Diaz-Balart replacement "who has a better sense of America's national interest and a modern approach to Cuba."

Diaz-Balart never made apologies for his unwavering opposition to Fidel Castro, but sought during a bruising reelection challenge in 2008 and in his announcement Thursday to underscore other accomplishments.

He noted he had secured money for local projects from Jackson Memorial Hospital to the U.S. Southern Command and had restored disability benefits and Medicaid to legal immigrants. His immigration work -- including pushing to give undocumented college students a chance for citizenship -- earned him the respect of immigration advocates accustomed to battling Republican efforts to restrict immigration.

Still, said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, on Thursday, "Nothing is closer to Lincoln's heart than the struggle for freedom in his beloved Cuba."

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