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The Same Old Garbage

Romney Does Florida

by ALAN FARAGO

Mitt Romney ventured into Miami this week and at a campaign stop at Palacios de los Jugos, only a day after introducing his running mate Congressman Paul Ryan.

Romney, without Ryan, did not mention “Cuba”, once. It was a check-the-box visit to a key constituency in a swing state. That the venue was owned by a federally convicted coke smuggler (reported by Miami New Times) serves to remind that when considering Florida politics, Miami is ground zero. It is where the 2000 presidential election was stolen. It is where the housing boom materialized. It is the mortgage fraud capital of the United States. It is where backstories deserve attention.

Romney was introduced by Florida senator Marco Rubio, a political offspring of Castro hatred. Rubio has plenty of company; he is a West Dade boy through and through. The bona fides against Castro are so important in Miami politics that Rubio’s resume includes serious misrepresentations of his parents’ experiences prior to becoming exiles from Cuba.

On one level the primary purpose of anti-Castro fervor was used to enlist support in Congress for re-taking the island nation and then, to grind its economy to dirt. A more important purpose, though less recognized by the rest of the nation, was to organize control of Miami-Dade politics, including contracts flowing from its multi-billion dollar budget. Jorge Mas Canosa, the founder of the Cuban America National Foundation in Miami, became renown for the railing against the Castro regime, but he was wealthy through political connections at County Hall. There were two important purposes of that control: first, to influence infrastructure contracts and, second, to rezone farmland to development. Both cemented political alliances. Anti-Castro sentiment was easier to mine in the Mas generation because the wounds were so fresh. Over time, and after Miami-Dade politics was locked down by Cuban American campaign funders from the development community, the demographics began to change. Mas Canosa (and Miami’s) economic base was suburban sprawl, places like West Dade where Marco Rubio grew up. As suburbs moved further and further from real jobs at the airport or downtown, the new buyers in those former Everglades wetlands were less likely to be Cuban than flight capital from other parts of the Americas.

The person who most closely followed Mas’ leadership in the business community, at the intersection of local politics and zoning control, was a Cuban American developer, Sergio Pino. Pino and his allies exerted control through the Latin Builders Association and through support of Spanish AM radio personalities who specialized in riling up voting blocs with anti-Castro venom. In contrast to Mas, Pino was and is all business. And business is non-partisan (although in Miami it leans heavily GOP). Chris Korge — prominent Democratic fundraiser– and Rodney Barreto — Jeb Bush lieutenant — found wealth following in Pino’s “lobbyist, first, developer later” footsteps.

Two factors are in play, in the “post-ideology” Miami. First, demographics. Younger Cuban Americans are eager to help family left behind in Cuba and view the Miami-Dade political ladder with cynicism. It carries over to indifference and even animosity toward the embargo. The second is economics. The housing crash severely hobbled suburban sprawl in west Dade. Many of the principal actors — like Pino — have been pinned down by debt. The housing crash collapsed Miami businesses based on sprawl. Pino founded US Century Bank to compliment his production home building juggernaut, US Century Homes. The bank, during the boom boom years, grew quickly to over a billion dollars in deposits and a reputation as the insider piggy-bank, but now hobbles along — its Tier One Capital supported by the largest contribution of federal TARP money in the state of Florida.

In Miami New Times, the owner of Palacios de los Jugos Reinaldo Bermudez, who served three years in federal prison, observed, “Here in Miami there are a lot of people with money who have had problems with the law… Thankfully, we all have the opportunity in this country to re-enter society when we’ve done something wrong.”

But there are also a few people who organized vast economic wealth around local political levers that operated according to hatred of Castro which wasn’t illegal in the slightest. It is supported by US foreign policy. They, too, are looking for a way back in the game and in the way that agnostic application of politics most benefits: dropping the embargo against Cuba. There is no money to be made building suburbs in Miami. Havana? Not yet.

There are external factors at work. The collapse of real estate and banking in Spain has had an important effect on local Miami deal makers who successfully exported their business models to Spain, where US-style ghost suburbs now litter the landscape. There has been very little examination of this phenomenon through which a compelling argument can now be made, by Republicans, that lifting the embargo is needed to revive fortunes that were lost in the crash.

Who, exactly, gets to “control” access to Cuba from Miami is the question.

So long as the Cuban American developers were printing money by rezoning farmland to sprawl, the embargo served the purpose to organize Miami and Florida politics to their bidding. Now that sprawl is dead in the dust, the rationale for opposing trade with Cuba has vanished. It requires some leadership in the Cuban American community to reorganize the story line, in order to drop the embargo. The Romney agreement to deploy Marco Rubio, a surrogate for Jeb Bush, to deliver his introduction at the upcoming Republican National Convention applies. Rubio in the spotlight focuses on the electoral value of Florida. But that ignores the backstory. Behind the scenes, it sets the stage for a reversal of the embargo in a way that advantages the GOP if Romney wins.

It is anyone’s guess how Cuba will react to withdrawing the embargo under a Romney presidency. Insiders in Cuba have also benefited from the intractable status quo. But if Republicans vote to bring down the wall, deals will be made regarding access. The stakes are so high in Miami that Republican leaders may decide to sit on the issue until after the election. On the other hand, there is Paul Ryan who was sent to Iowa instead of appearing as expected with Romney in Miami. Delaying support for dropping the embargo could cost Romney the election. Why? Because Romney desperately needs Hispanic votes. Were he to signal support for his running mate’s opposition to the embargo, there would be a rainbow effect with Hispanic voters in western states. Is there a plan afoot to hold down Florida, by Rubio, while Romney ventures across the states?

Timing is everything. Were Romney to play the drop-the-embargo card and lose, it would give President Obama — in his second term — political cover to take down the wall. But the Republicans would not be in control. Democratic senator Bob Menendez (NJ), would. And because of that risk, Florida GOP leaders like Bush and Rubio may sit on their hands this cycle, stop Romney from talking about Cuba or only give him talking points that rehash the same old garbage and let him fight for the Hispanic vote on his own. So what?

Miami Republicans have waited fifty years for Cuba, deploying US foreign policy gridlock to mine political benefits like a Ditch Witch while extracting massive wealth from suburban sprawl. What’s another four more years?

ALAN FARAGO, conservation chair of Friends of the Everglades, lives in south Florida. He can be reached at: afarago@bellsouth.net