Visa for Castro’s niece turns into political tempest in Florida
Visa for Castro's niece turns into political tempest in Florida
By ERIKA BOLSTAD AND MARC CAPUTO
WASHINGTON -- Florida's top congressional Democrats broke with President
Barack Obama on Tuesday over his administration's decision to issue
Fidel Castro's niece a visa to attend a conference this week in San
The opposition of Sen. Bill Nelson and Democratic National Committee
Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz came just hours after Republicans
had blasted away at the visa decision - while failing to acknowledge
that Republican President George W. Bush's administration had allowed
Mariela Castro to visit the United States three times a decade ago.
The fact that Republicans had remained silent over Bush's decision while
criticizing Obama gave Wasserman Schultz a measure of political cover in
breaking with Obama.
"The Bush Administration set a bad precedent by granting Mariela Castro
a waiver in 2001 and 2002 as I believe that such visa requests should
not be accepted because of the ongoing human rights abuses in Cuba," she
said in a written statement to The Miami Herald. "While I respect my
colleagues, it's important to note they did not criticize President
George W. Bush for granting Ms. Castro a waiver in 2002. Politics has no
place when we are standing up for human rights."
Nelson was more terse and more concerned with the plight of a jailed
"Allowing Raul's daughter to come to the U.S. when the regime still
holds Alan Gross makes no sense," said Nelson, who faces a tough
re-election campaign this fall.
Mariela Castro, a noted gay-rights activist who heads a sex-education
center in Cuba, is the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro. She is
scheduled to lead a panel on sexual diversity at the Latin American
Studies Association conference in San Francisco this week. She is among
more than 70 Cubans who applied for visas for the event; the State
Department has denied about a half dozen of the requests.
Both Wasserman Schultz and Nelson had remained quiet on the visa
controversy until asked this week by The Herald.
Meanwhile, the Florida Democratic Party has been vigorously defending
the Obama administration's visa decision since last week. That's when
Cuban-American Republicans from Miami, including Reps. Ileana
Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and David Rivera, began criticizing the
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a vice-presidential short-lister for
Republican Mitt Romney., said it was "shameful" to grant the visa. He
described the Cuban president's daughter as "an arm of his regime" who's
coming to the United States to "spread their anti-American propaganda."
Romney's presidential campaign took advantage of the issue to slam
Obama. "The United States should be standing up for freedom, not
coddling the privileged children of communist dictators," Romney's
policy director, Lanhee Chen, said late last week.
On Tuesday, Republicans blasted out news releases all but calling Obama
a communist. "Obama Lays Welcome Mat for Communist at U.S. Front Door"
said one news release from the Hispanic Leadership Network. "Obama
Rolling out the Red Carpet for the Castro Family," said one from the
Republican National Committee.
The political tempest comes at a time when the Republican Party is
attacking Obama's record at every turn to excite a crucial conservative
voting bloc for Romney in Florida: Cuban-Americans, who overwhelmingly
In defending Obama, other Florida Democrats lashed out at Republicans
for being hypocritical.
"Where was their criticism then?" said Freddy Balsera, an Obama
supporter from Miami, speaking on behalf of the Florida Democratic
Party. "Nowhere, because ultimately this is all about politics for them."
Balsera called on Republicans to "stop playing with people's emotions
when it comes to Cuba."
The Hispanic Leadership Network, partly led by former Florida Gov. Jeb
Bush, says there's a huge difference between the Bush-era visits and the
most recent visa approvals by Obama. The human rights situation in Cuba
has deteriorated since Castro's initial visit, said its director,
Jennifer Korn. That includes Gross' detention.
Also, Mariela Castro, at the time of her initial visit, was the niece of
the then-president, Fidel Castro. Now, she's the daughter of the Cuban
president, Korn said.
"The situations are not the least bit similar as the human rights
situation has deteriorated," she said. "An American citizen is locked up
in a Cuban jail now for trying to provide Internet access to Cubans, and
in the last few months since Pope Benedict's visit, Cubans have lived
under even more fear as they cope with a large roundup of dissidents and
By day's end, the conservatives had unexpected ideological allies in
Nelson and Wasserman Schultz, who has long straddled the dual worlds of
being a partisan Democrat and a Cuba hardliner.
After she was first picked by Obama to become DNC chair, a May 2011
Miami Herald story noted that the two differ over Cuba.
"It's not going to be something that creates any daylight between the
president and myself," she said at the time.