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Tapped by the Republican Party to deliver the Spanish-language rebuttal to President Barack Obama’s state of the union address, freshman Congressman Carlos Curbelo of Miami, Fla., touched on Cuba and immigration, two issues that were absent from the English-language response given by another rookie legislator, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst.
Curbelo, 34, is a former member of the Miami-Dade School Board who narrowly beat Democrat Joe Garcia in last year’s mid-term election in one of the country’s most competitive races. The GOP selected Curbelo even though he broke with the party last week by joining a handful of representatives in voting against a Republican bill undoing the president’s controversial executive actions on immigration.
Curbelo began his speech by providing a brief family history.
“I remember as a child, my parents worked long hours for the benefit of our family,” Curbelo said. “They came to this country looking for freedom and an opportunity to work and contribute to this great nation. For them, the road wasn’t easy.”
The congressman criticized the Obama administration for delivering “unearned concessions” to cruel dictatorships in Cuba and Iran. Ernst, on the other hand, did not mention Cuba in her speech at all.
Curbelo, who made immigration reform a cornerstone of his campaign, also spoke about “modernizing legal immigration.” Ernst did not mention “immigration” once in her speech. The differences were striking since the House GOP initially announced Curbelo’s speech would be a straight translation of Ernst’s speech. Tuesday afternoon, Curbelo told reporters the rebuttals would have some differences, but he did not specify what they would be.
Tuesday night, Curbelo told the Washington Post that he got “no pushback” when he submitted his draft to GOP leaders.
“Both [Ernst’s] speech and my speech, I think, reflect a blend of the party’s priorities and ideas, and then some of our own priorities and ideas, too," he said.
Political observers in Miami offered tepid reviews of Curbelo’s prime time performance. On local Spanish language television station Mira TV, which aired some of Curbelo’s speech, Raul Martinez, a Democrat and former mayor of Hialeah, Miami-Dade County’s second-largest city, said Curbelo failed to reach non-Cuban Latinos.
“He didn’t say anything about Latinos in Phoenix, Colorado, or New Mexico,” Martinez said.
“This is a speech people will forget about quickly,” added Armando Ibarra, a principal of Ai Advisory, a public affairs consulting firm that has been working with Cuban dissidents in Miami opposed to Obama normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba.
“It won’t have any impact or lasting significance,” Ibarra said.
On Curbelo’s Facebook page, some people admonished the congressman minutes after he finished his speech. “It makes me sad to see a good Latino be so blind,” Armando Hernandez wrote. “I hope your party doesn’t boot you out once they don’t need you anymore.”
Curbelo was among a minority of Republicans who voted against measures to undo executive actions that could protect as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation, in addition to allowing them to obtain work permits and driver's licenses.
Francisco Alvarado is a freelance journalist in South Florida.