Florida's 'dirtiest' congressional race is testing the Cuban waters

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Update: Shortly after this article was published, Miami's El Nuevo Herald released exclusive comments from Guillermo Fariñas in which he says he would have said the same thing for any Cuban-American member of congress. As such, he does not consider his comments to be an official endorsement. "At no moment in the ad did I ask the public to vote for a specific candidate," he said according to the paper. "As such, is is clear that I did not involve myself in the American electoral process."

When it comes time for political campaigning, the wavy blue line that separates South Florida from Cuba is often blurred. Here's how it usually plays out: members of the Cuban exile community argue about the minutia of the Cuban Embargo, and about how U.S. policy can affect the political situation on the island without actually engaging directly with those on the island.


The bickering, inconsequential as it might seem to outsiders, is of utmost importance in any national, state or local election, since it has the perceived ability to sway the hugely influential Cuban-American voting bloc to one side or the other.

This week, however, an unforeseen change of tactics has come into view, offering a glimpse of what the future of the Cuban policy debate might look like. For the first time ever, a prominent Castro-era Cuban dissident who still lives on the island has officially endorsed a politician in a stateside race.

Guillermo Fariñas, a dissident well known in the Cuban-American community for his international human rights awards and repeated hunger strikes in protest of the Castro regime's policies, has lent his support to incumbent Cuban-American Democrat Joe Garcia in the fight for what some local media has labeled "Florida's dirtiest congressional seat."

The battle for the 26th Congressional District of Florida is currently being waged between Garcia and Miami-Dade County school board member Republican, and fellow Cuban-American, Carlos Curbelo.

"For decades, Joe Garcia has been a compatriot committed to our fight," Fariñas says in the ad, shot in front of Miami's Freedom Tower, the symbolic building in which generations of Cubans were processed after arrival in the U.S. Fariñas filmed the spot during a recent visit to Miami, though he is now back in Cuba.


"The future will be decided inside Cuba, with fighters like Guillermo Fariñas," Garcia says in the ad. "Today, more than ever, we must be by his side — with more technology, more resources, and with our presence."

The endorsement from Fariñas is strategically aimed at the emerging generation of Cuban-Americans, more than 300,000 of whom have arrived within the last decade, says Guillermo Grenier, a professor of sociology at Florida International University, who has helped conduct surveys on Cuban-American attitudes since the early 1990s.


"With Fariñas, Garcia is acknowledging our polling that shows the newer arrivals have a more nuanced perspective on exile politics," he told Fusion. "Up until now, those [recent arrivals] with the strongest opinions about engaging more with the island have been the least likely to vote. But as time goes on, that will no longer be the case."

Garcia also supports allowing for increased travel and remittances to Cuba, while his opponent Curbelo and no other Cuban-American politicians on the national stage have taken such a stance.

Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas getting arrested by police in Santa Clara, Cuba in 2011. Photo by Getty Images

Grenier says that taken together, these moves help position Garcia as a welcomed pragmatic Cuban-American politician, an appraisal also echoed by a recent New York Times editorial.


Some critics and political opponents are not amused.

"This election is about the United States and about our community — not about another country," said opponent Curbelo after the ad was released. "Garcia's use of a foreign national in his ads is unacceptable and a new low point in his sick obsession with getting elected to public office."


"We criticize people for using the Cuban flag for political grandstanding," local activist Gus Garcia, no relation, commented to the Miami Herald about the ad. "We should criticize this too."

But Cuban issues have long been tied to politics in South Florida.

"Politicians for so long would come down to Little Havana, announce their hatred for Castro, and say what they are going to do to help get rid of him, and that would pretty much secure the Cuban vote for them," Grenier said. "Now, more is being demanded of them than just repeating that hard line."


"We'll see how this race plays out," he added.

Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

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