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Congressional District 25: The Diaz-Balart Fiefdom

September 27, 2012

The redrawn District 25 stretches from northwest Miami-Dade and southwest Broward across the Everglades to the Gulf of Mexico, including big portions of Collier County and Hendry County.  But the demographic center of gravity remains in Hialeah and Doral in Miami-Dade.  The district is heavily Hispanic (70 percent), though nearly half of the Hispanic population is now non-Cuban.

Incumbent congressman Mario Diaz-Balart inherited the district when his older brother Lincoln Diaz-Balart decided the grass was greener as a lobbyist and decided not to run for re-election in 2010.  Mario, who was facing a real re-election challenge in the neighboring district where he was then the US representative, carpetbagged over to his brother’s turf and ceded his old district to David Rivera.

For Mario Diaz-Balart, the district couldn’t be more ideal.  He is unopposed by a Democratic candidate in the general election, and—better yet—had no opponent in the Republican primary.  So he can just sit back and sip mojitos during the campaign season.

Since there’s basically nothing to talk about when it comes to the election, the story here is really about the Diaz-Balart dynasty, which requires some looking back into Cuban history.  It’s a fascinating story, worthy of a family biography (I was actually surprised that one apparently doesn’t exist).  Or perhaps a telenovela.

The one fact that frequently astounds clueless gringos is that Mario’s (and Lincoln’s) aunt, Mirta Diaz-Balart, was Fidel Castro’s first wife.  Which means that all that ensued thereafter was in one sense a real family feud.

Fidel and Mirta and her brother Rafael Diaz-Balart (Mario’s and Lincoln’s father) were all students at the University of Havana in the 1940s.  Mirta and Fidel married in 1948—according to some versions, against her family’s wishes—and had a son, Fidel Angel “Fidelito”.  The familial and political strains on the marriage grew as Fidel moved increasingly leftward and from student activism into violent confrontations against the government.  After Fulgencio Batista regained power in a 1952 coup and made himself dictator, the marriage was clearly doomed.  Rafael Diaz-Balart became a deputy in Batista’s Ministry of the Interior (which controlled internal security), and Fidel Castro launched a quixotic armed attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago in 1953, which landed him in prison.

In 1955, Rafael Diaz-Balart made an impassioned (and arguably prescient) speech before the Cuban Congress pleading against releasing Fidel from prison in an amnesty.  But Castro was released and went to Mexico, and later that year he and Mirta were divorced.  There was a prolonged and bitter custody battle for Fidelito—Mirta accused Fidel of kidnapping him during a visit to Mexico—but Fidelito ultimately ended up with his father.  (Sort of oddly foreshadowing the battle over Elian Gonzalez.)

Cuba in the mid-fifties was not exactly the idyllic democratic island of nostalgic exile memory.  Batista’s regime was a thuggish kleptocracy on the model so prevalent in Latin America in the last century.  He suspended civil liberties and formed a secret police force, while aligning himself with Cuba’s wealthiest families.  How deeply the senior Diaz-Balart was involved with Batista’s repressive apparatus is hard to know at this point.  Later he would try to distance himself from Batista, claiming that he had broken with the dictator, but the disclaimers weren’t totally convincing, as in this fascinating exchange before a US congressional committee in 1960.

In any case, Batista enjoyed US support. In 1960, then-Senator John F. Kennedy noted:  At the beginning of 1959 United States companies owned about 40 percent of the Cuban sugar lands – almost all the cattle ranches – 90 percent of the mines and mineral concessions – 80 percent of the utilities – and practically all the oil industry – and supplied two-thirds of Cuba’s imports.  Batista also allowed US mobsters—particularly Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano—to run the casinos, nightclubs, prostitution—for a sizable cut.  Americans in search of sex and gambling flocked to the mob’s resorts in Havana.

Cuba’s proportionately small but well-educated and industrious middle class did well under Batista, and they became Castro’s target and scapegoat as the Batista regime crumbled.  When Castro’s forces swept into Havana on January 1, 1959, Rafael Diaz-Balart had already left for Europe, doubtless seeing the handwriting on the wall.  (His brother Waldo, an artist, also left and for a while became a member of Andy Warhol’s Factory and acted in a couple of Warhol films including the 1968 sex-and-drugs classic Loves of Ondine.)

Within three years, Rafael Diaz-Balart had two US-born sons:  Jose (now a Telemundo anchor) born in November 1960 and Mario born in September 1961—both in Fort Lauderdale.  (Lincoln, the eldest, was born in Havana in August 1954.  A fourth son, Rafael J. Diaz-Balart, was born in 1959; he became an investment banker and is currently Chairman of the Board of the Miami Symphony.)  The senior Diaz-Balart developed extensive business interests in Spain, where he spent much of his time.  Lincoln graduated from the American School in Madrid.

All of the Diaz-Balart siblings have had impressive careers by any measure, and remarkably for such a big and prominent clan, the family has managed to avoid becoming enmeshed in scandal.  It is no disparagement of their achievements to observe, however, that they did not start out as penniless refugees.

Lincoln blazed the trail in US politics, and Mario has followed closely behind.  Both started out as Democrats, but both switched parties in 1985.  Lincoln won a seat in the Florida house of representatives in 1986, then won a Florida senate seat in 1989, then was elected to the US House of Representatives in a newly-created district in 1992 where he remained until 2010.  He deviated a bit from the Republican party line on some issues like immigration and gay rights, but fought against the Affordable Health Care Act (aka Obamacare) and voted against the 2008 economic bailout.  He also was a staunch opponent of online gambling, which is kind of ironic since he is now the leading lobbyist for the Malaysian Chinese gambling behemoth Genting which is spending huge sums on politicians as part of its efforts to win approval of megacasino resorts in South Florida.

Mario’s path has followed his brother’s:  Florida house in 1988, Florida senate in 1992, then the US House of Representatives in 2002.  His voting record has been similar to his brother’s as well.  Oddly, he seems to have a reputation as a bit of a conservationist, though it’s hard to see why.  His League of Conservation Voters score for the last congress was only 11 percent, and he claims to be “agnostic” on climate change.

The main leitmotif that runs through the family is their implacable hatred for Fidel Castro. Both Lincoln and Mario have been in the vanguard of the anti-Castro hardline in Congress, and don’t seem to have modified their views one iota.  Well, they keep getting elected, so why should they?  And it’s really a symbiotic relationship—the Castros need the hardliners to rally support on the island, and the hardliners need Castro to keep getting elected.

In any case, the 600,000+ constituents in District 25 have no choice.

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