National Review / Digital March 10, 2003
Meet the Diaz-Balarts
THEY’RE called the “Cuban Kennedys,” and the appellation is inevitable. The family is big, influential, and sort of glamorous. They were political leaders first in Cuba and then in Miami. The sons, in fact, are princes of Miami, although no scandals attach to them. In this sense they’re not very Kennedyesque, which is just the way the family would want it. The Diaz-Balarts are strong Republicans.
Two of the boys are in Congress: Lincoln Diaz-Balart, elected in 1992, and Mario Diaz-Balart, elected just last November. Another son is José Diaz-Balart, a television anchorman. He used to work on the CBS morning show, and is now a star of Telemundo. The fourth son although the firstborn, actually is Rafael Diaz-Balart, an investment banker in Miami.
I visit the boys in Congress, meeting the two in Lincoln’s office. (It’s only right that Mario, the freshman and little brother, be forced to trek to the bigger brother’s office.) I ask an easy, warm-puppies question: Are their parents proud of them? “Sure,” answers Lincoln, “but they never put any pressure on us to have a political career. They never told us what they expected. They guided us by their example. A lot of the things we deeply believe in, we picked up from them.”
In talking to the brothers, it’s obvious that they’re passionately, even quintessentially, American. And they’re equally passionately Cuban, never forgetting never forgetting the terror, depravity, and desperation in the homeland 90 miles away. Their father has said of his sons, “They’re 100 percent American and 100 percent Cuban.” As exemplified by the Diaz-Balarts, this is a formula that adds up.
OUT OF CUBA
That grandfather named his first son Rafael Lincoln Diaz-Balart: This is the boys’ father. The grandfather revered President Lincoln, and so bestowed that name on his son. The grandmother, as it happened, was a deep admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson: so another boy in that family was Waldo. Rafael Lincoln Diaz-Balart rose to become an important politician in the Republic. He would be majority leader in the House of Representatives. But first he was a friend, comrade, and roommate of Fidel Castro. One fatal thing the boys’ father did was introduce Castro to his sister Mirta, whom Castro married in 1948. They had one son, before divorcing in 1954. That boy, Fidelito, was sent to the Soviet Union to study and be communized.
According to Lincoln Diaz-Balart, his mother always hated Castro, even when the young rabble-rouser was best friends with her husband. She never trusted Castro, and she was appalled at the way he treated Mirta, her sister-in-law. When Castro seized power, the Diaz-Balart family which then numbered four happened to be out of the country. How important was that to their survival? “Put it this way,” says Mario Diaz-Balart, when I ask him: “If they hadn’t been out of the country, you and I and Lincoln wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.” The Castroites burned and looted their home. Last November, when Mario was elected, National Journal said that the new congressman’s “views on Cuba policy are likely to be colored by his family’s experience.” Colored. You think?
In the past, Castro has liked to say to visiting U.S. congressmen, “Give my best to my nephew, would you? He’s in Congress, you know.” Now he has two “nephews” in Congress. Lincoln says, “Castro likes to toy with us in that way. It’s totally cynical. It’s just part of his game. His visitors say, ‘You’ve got a nephew in Congress?!’ They’re so impressed.” The boys have no contact with their cousin, Fidelito. He was once out of favor with the regime, but is now back in, apparently. Lincoln says, “I don’t wish ill on anybody except on those who are running that place.” Mario chimes in, “Look, Fidelito is one of the oppressors, he’s part of that machine.” Blood relative or not, “that’s how we feel.”
The boys’ father, Raphael Lincoln Diaz-Balart, gave an extraordinary speech in the Cuban House in May 1955. Lincoln hands me a translation. The father wanted to explain his opposition to a law that amnestied Castro and his band. The law had just been passed and was apparently popular. The majority leader said, in part,
Fidel Castro and his group have repeatedly declared, from their comfortable prison, that they will be leaving prison only in order to continue plotting new acts of violence and whatever it takes to achieve the total power they seek. They have refused to take part in any type of peaceful settlement, threatening both members of the government and members of the opposition who support electoral solutions to the country’s problems.
He ended, “I believe that this amnesty so imprudently adopted will bring days, many days, of mourning, pain, bloodshed, and misery to the Cuban people, even though these very people do not see it that way now. I ask God that the majority of the people and the majority of my fellow representatives present here be the ones who are right. I ask God that I be the one who is mistaken for Cuba’s sake.”
Lincoln was born there, in 1954, and Mario here, in 1961. The younger brother left college to work for the mayor of Miami and never went back. At 27, he was elected to the state house of representatives. At 31, he was elected to the state senate. As chairman of the ways and means committee, he was a ferocious budget-cutter. His nickname? “The Slasher.” Employing his legislative virtuosity, he had a hand in drawing the district that would elect Lincoln to Congress. Years later, he had a hand in drawing the district that would elect . . . him. Most seem to think that his future in Washington is very bright. Mario was chosen to give a kind of pep talk to GOP senators about the Miguel Estrada judicial nomination: If you’re Hispanic, you’re supposed to be a liberal Democrat. The Diaz-Balarts are fervent Reaganites. They have naked contempt for the notion of race-as-destiny.
With Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the brothers compose the Big Three of Miami Cubans in Congress. A fourth Cuban-American, Robert Menendez, comes from New Jersey. “He’s a partisan Democrat,” says Lincoln, “but on Cuba we think exactly alike.” The brothers are keen to be all-purpose American congressmen, and they are that, but they know they have a burden to keep an eye on Cuba. It’s not a burden they reject or resent. “How can you do otherwise,” asks Lincoln, “if you know what’s going on?” They know the history of Cuba chapter-and-verse, and they know the names and particulars of political prisoners. Lincoln describes Castro’s island as “a mixture of medieval feudalism and Al Capone-ism” “with a touch of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest thrown in,” adds Mario.
Like all Cuban-Americans, the Diaz-Balarts are disturbed by the persistent pro-Castroism among American elites, particularly in academia, the media, and Hollywood. It would be one thing if these elites merely ignored Cuba; but they weigh in actively for the regime. Castro plays the American press like a violin, the brothers note, giving the “eight-hour treatment,” as Lincoln calls it, to Barbara Walters, Andrea Mitchell, and the like. “He doesn’t give this treatment to just anyone,” says Lincoln. “He has to suspect that you’ll fall for it.” And yet, the brothers insist, Americans in general still recognize Castro for what he is. “They know he’s a tyrant,” says Lincoln, “even though they’ve heard nothing but positive things about him for forty years.”
The policies Lincoln and Mario favor are those usually described in our press as “hard-line.” (That’s not meant as a compliment.) And the press is full of stories alleging that the South Florida community is changing that a new generation favors a softer, more accommodating line toward Cuba. The brothers both guffaw. “This story has been written, repeatedly, for years,” says Mario. “And yet Lincoln, Ileana, and I are elected with 95 percent of the Cuban-American vote.” The local media billed Mario’s race last fall as “a referendum on U.S. policy toward Cuba.” (His Democratic opponent advocated a softer line.) “Then when I won, big, it wasn’t a referendum anymore!”
The Diaz-Balart brothers also do well among non-Cuban Hispanics, even though these Hispanics are often said to be hostile to the Cubans. “The Democrats try to play a game of divide-and-conquer,” says Mario. But it has not triumphed in Greater Miami. Lincoln says that non-Cuban Hispanics are now as much a part of his political base as the Cubans. And he scores heavily among “Anglos.”
In Congress, the Cubans aren’t entirely lacking in Democratic allies. Lincoln cites some Jewish congressmen, such as New York’s Eliot Engel and Gary Ackerman. They “get it,” he says understand what the Cubans are up against. (The Diaz-Balarts, in turn, are passionate supporters of Israel.) And then there’s Rep. Tom Lantos, the Democrat from California who came to this country as a Hungarian refugee. Says Lincoln, “Lantos is practically the only one who has gone down to Havana and grasped everything. Unfortunately, most people who go down there don’t have totalitarianism as a reference point in their lives. Lantos came back and said repression there is worse than in Ceausescu’s Romania.”
FOLLOWING REAGAN AND JEANE
The brothers are deeply admiring of the current president. Lincoln avers that he’s practically as good as Reagan! They’re also admirers of the president’s brother, the governor of Florida. “Jeb Bush is beyond smart,” Lincoln says. “He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. You can talk big picture with him, you can talk about budget details it doesn’t matter. Jeb’s on top of everything.” Besides which, his Spanish is “excellent fluent.” (The governor’s wife is Mexican.)
As for George W., Lincoln says, “I like his instincts. When a problem reaches his desk, he decides it in the correct manner.” Whether information reaches his desk, however, is another matter. Lincoln says that vital information about Cuba including Castro’s role in international terrorism seems not to make its way up the chain. Nor is he happy with the administration’s Latin America policy overall. “I don’t think that Secretary Powell has been sufficiently in tune with what’s going on” in the region, he says. The situation in Venezuela is deteriorating, with Hugo Chavez having discarded “his democratic legitimacy.” Colombia “needs more help, more attention, more emphasis.” Granted, there’s a mammoth war on terrorism in progress, plus nuclear-armed North Korea. “But there’s a strange inertia in our country that leads to the ignoring of our own hemisphere.”
When all is said and done, what fires the Diaz-Balarts is freedom. They can get as exercised about China as they do about Cuba. “I feel almost embarrassed for the human race that we just sit here and accept regimes like that,” says Lincoln. He decries the fact that the Cubans have so few supporters and defenders on the world scene Vaclav Havel is often a lonely voice.
And what about the post-Castro period Liberation Day and after? Will there be a Diaz-Balart migration in reverse? Lincoln allows that “I’m going to know things that are useful. I often think, ‘Gosh, when there’s finally a parliament again, there should be a rules committee.’ I have a duty to be generous with what I know.” But leadership should be taken by the dissidents, he says as in the former Czechoslovakia, as in Poland. Take the imprisoned and unfathomably heroic Oscar Elías Biscet: “I know what it means for someone like Dr. Biscet, who could be in exile, who could have become a physician in Miami, to have voluntarily chosen to take a stand that would lead him to a dungeon. So, if there’s any justice in the world, the dissidents, the oppositionists, the democrats the ones who have suffered and bled and risked everything will be the ones in the lead.”
Meanwhile, the Cuban Kennedys will cut a swath through Miami. And Washington.