Communism can still influence campaigns in miami miami herald gas city indiana police department

Decades after the Cuban revolution spawned an exodus that reshaped South Florida culture and U.S. politics in the Caribbean, political exiles are declining in number in Miami and leftist angst is fading. But it’s far from gone. And under the right conditions and in the right neighborhoods, evoking the tyranny of dictators can still be an effective tactic in manipulating votes and undercutting opponents.

Take the special election to claim an open county commission seat representing Little Havana, where former state senator Alex Diaz de la Portilla is ginning up ties between Communist regimes and his closest competitor in order to scrap his way back to relevancy. Using a political committee, he’s raised the specter of the Castros and repressive Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in an attempt to win a seat that pays only $6,000 a year but carries enormous political power.

It’s a throwback strategy to the days when Fidel Castro was at the height of his power and the whiff of a connection to Communist Cuba could doom a campaign or a government contractor. And it remains effective in the heart of Miami’s exile community, where low-turnout elections are often won and lost on the ballots of elderly Hispanic voters who religiously participate in local elections.

"I’ve never called anyone here a communist," said Diaz de la Portilla, who says Alvarez lied to him and others about his reliance on Venezuelan oil. "Whenever you have money from foreign dictators influencing local elections, that’s always a concern. Especially in this community that has so many victims of dictators. We have so many Cubans and Venezuelans who are victims, so to have somebody who’s Cuban and profiting off the sale of Venezuelan oil, that’s something that every voter, not only Cuban voters, should be concerned about."

Diaz de la Portilla’s allegations against Alvarez have roiled other Republicans, who say he’s waging a dirty campaign based on regressive politics. Former Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who came to Miami from Cuba on the Pedro Pan flights of the 1960s, thinks voters won’t be convinced that Barreiro — who in an interview recalled arriving in the United States from Cuba at the age of 12 on a fishing boat named “Coral Reef” during the 1980 Mariel boat lift — is financing her campaign through Venezuelan oil.

In his final weeks as Miami mayor, Regalado fumed as Diaz de la Portilla — at the time a consultant for former mayor Joe Carollo — engineered a series of conspiratorial attacks involving the Regalados, the Castros and Venezuela. One hit piece juxtaposed a picture of the mayor and Sean Penn together at a Miami Heat game next to a photo of Penn with Castro, Maduro and Chávez in an attempt to tie the mayor and his son, Tommy, to the hated dictators. Mayor Regalado threatened to sue (he didn’t), and an exile group known as the Assembly of Cuban Resistance condemned it as a "defamation" of Regalado’s character.

Now, Diaz de la Portilla hopes to ride the same tactics back to relevance after losing his last two campaigns and fading further away from his days as Florida Senate majority leader. The district includes liberal Miami Beach. But special elections are notorious for low voter turnout and Moreno, the pollster, says there remains a dedicated group of several thousand elderly Hispanics in Miami who could be swayed by the specter of Castro.

"The people who live here are the victims," Diaz de la Portilla said. "These are the victims of those governments and of course they’re going to be concerned about where the money is coming from. Particularly these districts. This is the heart of Little Havana and the heart of where Cuban Americans live, people who had to leave their country. These are not the children of the victims."

Zoraida Barreiro — one of four candidates in the race along with Diaz de la Portilla, Eileen Higgins and Carlos Garin — calls the play "desperate" and "ludicrous." Diaz de la Portilla is also attacking her over her relationship with Jorge Luis Lopez, a well-connected county lobbyist who represents Odebrecht, the company that built a port in Mariel, Cuba, and has been embroiled in bribery scandals outside of Miami.

Moreno thinks the strategy can still work, regardless of whether it’s true. And at the very least, Castro is likely to remain a bogeyman of some Miami campaigns for the near future, Moreno believes, considering that the tactic of tying opponents to communism is so entrenched in Miami that for old-school politicians, "it’s instincts."