Image: Lincoln Diaz-Balart
U.S. Congress
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, whose aunt was Cuban leader Fidel Castro's first wife, fled with his family to Miami as a child.
updated 2/11/2010 2:57:19 PM ET 2010-02-11T19:57:19

Florida Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart said Thursday he would not seek re-election after nearly two decades in office as one of the country's most prominent Cuban-American politicians and a vocal opponent of Cuba's communist government.

Diaz-Balart, 55, said he chose not to run again while he remained in a strong position: He has no notable challengers, and Republicans appear likely to gain seats in the House.

Shortly after Thursday's announcement, his younger brother Mario, a Republican congressman representing the district neighboring his brother's, said he planned to switch districts and run for the vacated seat, which is home to many of the region's Cuban exiles.

Lincoln Diaz-Balart said he plans to return to his law practice and continue working for democracy in Cuba, including setting up a nonprofit organization to promote the ideals espoused by their late father, Rafael Diaz-Balart, who helped lead one of the first opposition movements against Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

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'"I am convinced that in the upcoming chapter of the struggle, I can be more useful to the inevitable change that will soon come to Cuba, to Cuba's freedom, as a private citizen," he told reporters at Florida International University's law school, named for his father.

Dario Moreno, a political science professor at FIU, said the move would ensure Mario Diaz-Balart, 48, a safer seat. It also leaves open the possibility for a Democratic win in his more diverse 25th district, which stretches from Miami's western suburbs, down through the Everglades and across to Florida's western coast.

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Lincoln Diaz-Balart served six years in the state legislature before he won a special election for Florida's 21st district in 1989. He went virtually unchallenged until last year when fellow Cuban-American and former Hialeah mayor Raul Martinez ran against him but ended handily winning even that race.

Diaz-Balart's father was a one-time friend of Castro and his aunt became Castro's first wife. But his family fled Cuba for Miami when he was a child following the Cuban revolution. His brother was born in Florida.

Lincoln Diaz-Balart frequently used his position on the powerful House Rules Committee to negotiate votes for legislation he championed, such as the U.S. embargo of Cuba. He said one of his most important accomplishments was turning the embargo from an executive order into a law only Congress can overturn.

"The reason why the world today debates the issue of Cuba — in contrast to the also condemnable internal situations in the other totalitarian states ... is because the U.S. embargo exists," he said.

Diaz-Balart also co-authored a 1997 law that granted legal residency to hundreds of thousands of Central American immigrants in the U.S., particularly Nicaraguans. And he is one of the few Republican in Congress to repeatedly call for comprehensive immigration reform. His brother shares many of his political positions.

He said Thursday he still hoped the Democratic leadership might bring an immigration reform bill to the House floor before he leaves. He also hopes Congress will finally pass the Colombia Free Trade Agreement before he leaves office.

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