End of the Diaz-Balart Dynasty
The Republican brothers are headed for defeat, and Cuban-American politics will change forever.
By Francisco Alvarado
published: October 23, 2008
(…) In less than two weeks, a South Florida political dynasty will almost certainly disappear. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, fierce anti-Communists who are indeed Castro’s nephews by a failed first marriage, will likely lose — victims of the anti-Republican discontent sweeping America. They are scions of a family that has dominated politics in both Havana and Washington for more than a half-century.
Until now, the Diaz-Balarts have skated through elections. But two Democratic challengers seem to have their number. Former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez and onetime Cuban American National Foundation chief Joe Garcia have raised more than $2 million. Recently released polls by Telemundo 51 and the Rothenberg Report show the Republican siblings trailing the Dems or locked in a dead heat. The November 4 election will tip their way if Obama voters show in force, which is likely.
That result will forever alter U.S. policy toward Cuba. And it might signal a shift of the Republican party’s staunchest South Florida allies — Cuban-Americans.
(…) Ashen rain clouds darken the sky over the Miami Springs Country Club on Curtiss Parkway. A monsoon-like downpour pelts the golf course. But the dreary weather doesn’t dampen the mood inside the swanky clubhouse’s ballroom, where 75 guests have gathered to hear the jowly, heavy-set, and towering Raul Martinez deliver a pugnacious stump speech.
(…) Then there’s the question of so-called Republican Party fatigue. Younger generations of Cuban-Americans are less likely to follow the hard-line exile politics of their parents. According to a poll released earlier this year by the Foundation for Normalization of U.S.-Cuba Relations, 48 percent of surveyed registered voters in the Diaz-Balarts’ districts are “more likely” to vote for a presidential candidate who would allow Cuban-Americans to travel freely to the island, while 36 percent stated they would be less likely to support such a person.
The Diaz-Balarts support the travel restrictions. Their challengers are in favor of easing them.
With regard to money, the races are close. Lincoln has raised $1.6 million to Martinez’s $1.3 million, while Mario has collected $1.2 million to Garcia’s $1 million, according to reports filed this past August 6, the most recent available.
The parties are also pumping millions of dollars into the districts, and third-party political groups, known as 527s, are playing a prominent role. One group, called the Patriot Majority, has distributed six mailers assailing Lincoln for repeatedly voting in favor of congressional pay raises. One of them shows the older Diaz-Balart’s profile next to five stacks of hundred-dollar bills. “We count on our congressman to protect the American dream,” it says. “Lincoln Diaz-Balart has continually voted to use our tax dollars to raise his own salary.”
The Republican Party of Florida has responded with a newsletter called Ultima Noticia, chock full of spooky Cold War intrigue. It cites Martinez contributors who legally set up trips to Cuba: “The Cuban tyranny and its associates, collaborators, and defenders in the United States have concluded the only way to end the embargo … is to remove Lincoln Diaz-Balart and replace him with Raul Martinez, who supports multimillion-dollar unilateral concessions for the Cuban tyranny.”
His opponent, Raul Martinez, has criticized him for accepting money from tainted sources. But Lincoln scoffs. “Raul questioning my ethics,” he says, “is like Al Capone complaining about someone running a red light.”
A closeup of Raul Martinez’s mug shot fills the television screen. Slow-motion video footage shows the ex-Hialeah mayor entering a Mercedes-Benz. Then, suddenly, the camera cuts to an image of a judge’s gavel slamming the podium superimposed with the word guilty. Headlines announce Martinez’s 10-year prison sentence.
A female voice warns, “The conduct of Raul Martinez. After years of embarrassing our community through corruption and scandal, using public office to become a millionaire, convictions for bribery and extortion, Martinez is featured in the investigative documentary Cocaine Cowboys, about drug trafficking in South Florida. Now Raul Martinez wants to take his corruption to Washington. We have to stop corruption. Say no to Raul Martinez.”
That’s the way Lincoln Diaz-Balart wants voters to think about Martinez. And it’s more or less accurate — except that the bribery charges against Martinez were dropped after an appeal and some legal wrangling. Martinez, a bear of a man with the charisma of Latin American leaders such as Peru’s Alan García, likes to think of himself more as the guy he came off as during a September 30 party at the cavernous AFL-CIO union hall in Allapattah. Dozens of union workers dined on steak, corn on the cob, and other grilled fixings as the organization’s president, Fred Frost, took the mike. “You all want to meet the guy who is going to kick Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s ass?” Frost inquired.
“Yeah!” the crowd roared back.
Frost handed the microphone to Martinez, who was impeccably dressed in a dark navy two-piece suit, light blue dress shirt, and solid blue tie. “I made my wife a promise I wouldn’t touch him,” Martinez said, referring to Lincoln. “But believe me, I want to punch him.”
The crowd roared again.
Martinez reminded them Lincoln had backed out of an AFL-CIO-sponsored debate this past May and thanked the union workers for giving him their endorsement.
“Raul! Raul!” they chanted.
“You are all part of my family,” Martinez rattled, “and I will protect the interests of my family. You all know I can be a tough SOB, and I will fight for you.”
Martinez, like his opponent, was born on the island — in 1949 in Santiago de Cuba. After the revolution, his family left for Miami, where he graduated from high school and then attended Florida International University. In 1977, he was elected to the Hialeah City Council; four years later, he snagged the mayor’s job.
During 24 years of leading the so-called City of Progress, he created innovative e-libraries that were among the first in Miami-Dade to offer English and citizenship classes. Martinez is also credited with building some of the finest public parks, recreational systems, and fire and police services in the state, as well as implementing award-winning elderly living and affordable housing programs.
He also earned a reputation as a combative politician who never lost an election. His politics, which sometimes incorporated intimidation and even alleged thuggery, gained opponents’ respect and fear.
Martinez sometimes came off as a bully. For instance, in June 1999, when more than 400 people blocked the Palmetto Expressway to protest a group of Cuban migrants being deported, then-Hialeah Police Chief Rolando Bolaños was hit in the head with a rock.
Bolaños called Martinez, who rushed over. A few minutes later, a crew from Univision filmed Martinez repeatedly punching a much smaller man, a butcher named Ernesto Mirabal. Despite the incriminating footage, Hialeah Police charged Mirabal with battery on an elected official, resisting arrest with violence, and inciting a riot. The charges were later dropped.
Then there’s the alleged public corruption. In 1989, Martinez announced he would run for Congress. His opponent, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (who this year is likely to have an easier go of it than the Diaz-Balarts), was married to the acting U.S. attorney at the time, Dexter Lehtinen. The same year, Lehtinen — a tough former commando — initiated a criminal investigation into accusations Martinez had extorted close to $1 million from developers in exchange for zoning favors.
Two years later, a jury convicted the Hialeah pol on six counts of conspiracy, extortion, and racketeering. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Martinez eventually won an appeal and a second trial in 1996, which resulted in a hung jury. A third trial, held the same year, resulted in his acquittal on one count of extortion while the jury deadlocked on the five remaining counts. Prosecutors decided to go no further.
During an interview at his campaign office, Martinez dismisses his criminal proceedings as old news. “My past is my past,” he says. “In the end, I was found not guilty. And I finished that process 14, 15 years ago.”
Martinez also points out the Cocaine Cowboys ad doesn’t mention the convictions were reversed on appeal. “It is very sad that a congressman of 16 years can’t run on his record,” he seethes. “Lincoln has to run on lies and character assassination. It shows that he has failed the people of this district.”
The Diaz-Balart camp also provided New Times with a list of Martinez’s dubious campaign donors. They include Hector Ortiz, a Hialeah-based contractor who was banned from doing county work for two years; Recaredo Gutierrez, convicted on a counterfeiting charge in 1998; and Alfredo Duran, a Miami lawyer and former state Democratic Party chairman, who was acquitted of federal charges that he participated in a scheme to bribe Dominican Republic officials to release seized drug planes when the feds’ main witness jumped bail and fled the States.
Lincoln tells New Times he simply wants to remind people who Raul Martinez really is. “His whole record personifies corruption,” he says. “People need to know that.”