State Politics

Senate candidates meet at Cuba forum

CORAL GABLES — The four top candidates in the race to become Florida’s next U.S. senator vied Monday to show the state’s politically powerful Cuban-American community why each would be the best to fight for democracy in Cuba.

Gov. Charlie Crist, GOP challenger Marco Rubio and Democratic candidates U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek and former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre addressed the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee (PAC), which supports a hard-line against the Cuban government — marking the first time since the Senate campaign began that all attended an event simultaneously.

Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants who has increasingly chipped away at Crist’s lead, was the candidate to receive the largest applause from the audience of more than 300, including some of the nation’s most powerful Hispanic political, media and business leaders.

A recent report by a nonprofit that tracks political donations showed the PAC and its supporters have given more than $10 million to congressional campaigns over the last seven years.

But it was Democrat Meek’s 83-year-old mother, former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, who stole the show with the largest standing ovation during a shout-out from her son and later a special recognition from Cuban-American U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, all Republicans.

During his speech, Rubio warned that U.S. policy toward the communist island says as much about America as it does about Cuba.

“Do we still mean all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights? Do we still mean it when we say no government has power except the power people allow it to have?” he asked. “(Or) have we come to a point in our history where we believe that selling rice and cattle to a tyranny is more important than standing by the principles that underlie our founding? Are we prepared to say some tourist package to Havana is more important than the very words that gave this nation birth?”

Crist stressed his experience as governor and his commitment to the state while highlighting his own grandfather’s experience immigrating from Greece — a story he has told so many times he joked that Rubio could probably recite it in his sleep.

Carrie Meek was honored for her long commitment to both Florida and the Cuban-American community. Her son indirectly linked her struggle as a single mother and her fight against racism in the U.S. to the struggles of human rights activists in Cuba.

In response to those in his own party who believe the U.S. should offer more olive branches to the Cuban government, Meek said: “We have made several moves as Americans toward the Cuban government and the Castro regime, but they have not moved not one inch toward democracy, free elections or releasing political prisoners.”

Meek noted that as a member of the Democratic majority in Congress, he would have the ear of the president on Cuba policy.

He recalled how U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-NJ, the only Cuban-American in the Senate, held up major economic legislation earlier this year to protect the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

“He has perspective about what is important, even if he may be misunderstood by those in his own party,” Meek said to strong applause. “Well, I look forward to being misunderstood with him as your next United States Senator.”

Long-shot Democrat Ferre, a Puerto Rican and six-term Miami mayor, took perhaps the most daring position of the day, urging the audience to support Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez despite her opposition to travel restrictions on the island, a measure firmly supported by the PAC.