Tuesday, May 7, 2013

From Poder magazine, April/May 2013
  A Message from Garcia
A die-hard dialoguero pushes for more people-to-people contact -- in the U.S. House of Representatives

By Kirk Nielsen

I recently snagged South Florida’s first Cuban Democrat in Congress, Joe Garcia, by cellphone as he drove to the Keys to meet with constituents of his district. Ten years ago this spring, when I often had Garcia on the line, the conversation inevitably centered on his notion that political enemies on opposite sides of the Florida Straits should start having precisely that: a conversation. Back then he was executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) and pushing a new policy favoring dialogue with Cuban officials (except Fidel and Raul Castro). The idea was that talking could be a first step towards reconciling differences, making concessions, maybe even lifting U.S. trade restrictions. But hardliners in Miami and Havana condemned Garcia. They had vested interests in not talking.

Now as a representative serving Florida’s 26th U.S. House District, Garcia is again promoting the idea of bridging a political divide, this time the one in the Capitol building known as The Aisle. One of his first moves after taking his seat was to join a group of nine other freshmen Democrats and 10 freshman Republicans calling themselves United Solutions. Sharing “a willingness to compromise,” they’re “putting aside partisan differences to do what is right for the American people” concerning the nation’s fiscal crisis, he said in a floor speech in February. “It seems like when we do gather here in this chamber, rather than finding common sense solutions to our problems, we engage in ideological debates, taking votes that are designed for political posturing, that lead us nowhere.”

South Florida’s first Cuban Democrat in Congress is also the first Hispanic Democrat elected to the House from anywhere in the Sunshine State. That fact, owing in part to the South Americanization of his district, probably explains why he was far more eager to speak about “comprehensive immigration reform” than anything else, even Cuba policy, as he drove southward along the Overseas Highway. He thinks the $18 billion federal agencies spend annually on “border protection” is excessive and has diminishing returns. He scoffed at the use of military drones to patrol the border with Mexico. (We spoke before Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky’s 13-hour filibuster to, in Rand’s words, “sound the alarm [that] “no American should be killed by a drone without first being charged with a crime.”) Garcia is also concerned about the 49,000 foreign travelers who miss connections each year at Miami International Airport because of slow processing by the understaffed immigration and customs system there. “We need a border that works,” Garcia says. 

Not surprisingly, Garcia’s first bill as a member of Congress was immigration-related. The Venezuelan Liberty Act would grant amnesty to Venezuelans who relocated to the U.S. after Hugo Chavez became president in February 1999 but who lack permanent legal status. Garcia told me he also plans to introduce legislation that would aim to ensure that hundreds of Haitians, Hondurans and Salvadorans who’ve received temporary visas while seeking political amnesty aren’t left out of reforms. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, he’s in a good position to do so. 

Garcia may have a tougher time affecting Cuba policy since he’s not on the foreign relations or appropriations committees. Still, he couldn’t help but offer more progressive notions that are certain to rile any hardliners left in his district. He still supports the U.S. ban on tourist travel to the socialist island but believes President Obama should expand the number of licenses Americans receive for educational, religious, and cultural exchanges there. He thinks Congress should authorize micro-loans for entrepreneurs on the island and scholarships for young Cubans to study at U.S. universities, even though he acknowledges that the current regime in Havana would probably shoot down those overtures as they did CANF’s 2003 pro-dialogue message. “More civil society is better than less. More family contact is better than less,” he says.

“I’m not going to obsess about Cuba,” he added, “but one of the problems is you need someone willing to engage in change on the other side.” 

That goes for other side of The Aisle, too. Let’s hope Garcia and his bipartisan colleagues in United Solutions have a lot more success at dialogue than did CANF.

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