When immigrants leave their country, they usually leave their connections and name recognition behind. But that doesn’t apply to Cubans in South Florida, which is home to almost half of the U.S. Cuban population.
The brothers Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart are Cuban-Americans who have been fixtures in South Florida politics for decades. Both served in the state Legislature and Congress. Mario Diaz-Balart still represents the 25th Congressional District, which includes most of Southwest Dade.
Their success is a reflection of their unique family history but also the unusual circumstances of Cuban-Americans.
The seeming underdog
By the 1980s, Cuban-Americans had become a major force in Miami-Dade politics.
It had been a generation since Cuban exiles had fled after the rise of Fidel Castro and they got the right to vote much faster than other immigrants.
Having established themselves financially, Cubans in South Florida were coming of age politically.
In 1986 then-state Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen was running for the state Senate and leaving her seat in a district that was mostly Hispanic and very Republican.
And one of the first to announce his candidacy to replace her was Armando Penedo, the Cuban-born mayor of Sweetwater.
Penedo recalls seeing the list of other candidates: “There were five of us, and I saw his name there and I thought, ‘Uh oh’.”
The name he saw belonged to a 32-year-old who in many respects could have been considered a long shot. He had not only been a Democrat, he had been head of the Miami-Dade County Young Democrats. He had grown up in Spain, gone to school in Ohio and had only moved to Miami about seven years earlier. He had never held elected office.
But his name was Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
Lincoln recalls the welcome he got in Miami when he arrived just after law school: “I went to give a talk at an elderly center in Little Havana and when I introduced myself, I’m from legal services and I mentioned my name - I got a standing ovation. They didn’t know me. But they obviously remembered my father and his father.”
Made in Cuba
Diaz-Balart’s father and grandfather were well-known politicians in Cuba. His grandfather was the mayor of the town of Banes and a member of the legislature. His father was undersecretary of the interior, a majority leader in the House, and a senator. He had vehemently opposed Castro's release after his attack on a Cuban military barrack.
That legacy made its way to South Florida with the Cuban immigrants who came here.
Months before Election Day, 32-year-old Lincoln Diaz-Balart had managed to raise thousands more than Penedo and the other candidates.
“The commitment was easy,” says Pedro Roig, who at the time was with the Cuban American National Foundation, which supported candidates who were anti-Castro.
As a teenager in Santiago de Cuba, Roig had heard the Diaz-Balart name in the papers and radio when Lincoln's father Rafael was a government official. Years later, Roig became friends with Rafael when the family had left Cuba.
“We knew the family, and we were friends of his father,” Roig says of Lincoln, and “he was very likeable. When he knocked at my door, my door was open.”
Armando Penedo knew his run for the state house was going to be a tough one:
“People that they knew me, that were friends of mine and they said, ‘Armando, I cannot help you because Rafael is an old friend of ours, his father, and we were Batistianos, so we gotta help him.’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s a bad one.’”
Reputations good or bad
Batistianos were people who had supported Fulgencio Batista, the military dictator deposed by Castro. Batista’s had regime became known for corruption and repression and Lincoln’s father had been part of that government.
Dario Moreno is a politics professor at Florida International University and has done polling for the Diaz-Balarts. Moreno says the name could have been a liability: “Their father was a controversial figure in Cuban exile politics.”
Another possible liability of the name: their aunt was Castro’s first wife, though they divorced.
But Penedo says Lincoln ran a beautiful campaign, “going to the radio, having nice advertisements, knocking on doors, nice flyers, he worked hard... he wanted it more than I did.”
Penedo lost to Lincoln, who went on to became a state senator and congressman for 18 years.
“The fact that reputations for good or bad are affected by family members,” says Lincoln. “That’s a fact, but that’s whether you’re in politics, or you’re in sports or any other endeavor.”
Two years later, Lincoln’s brother Mario won a seat in the state House. He counts the reputation and work of his father and grandfather as "huge assets" in his career: “[T]hey’re exceedingly well known and really respected in our community. I run into a lot of friends of theirs that say I knew them or I served with them.”
Armando Penedo ran for state representative one more time, and lost again.
But he says he’s not bitter: “No, that’s politics, honey. The more friends you have the more you’re liked. That’s politics.”
Penedo says he has since voted for both Lincoln and Mario. He has even put a Diaz-Balart bumper sticker on his car.
This story came from our What’s the Story? blog, where we answer audience questions about South Florida.