MIAMI — Donald Trump and the GOP dominated Florida’s elections last November in part due to the former president’s hardline Latin America policy and rhetoric.
Now, in Cuba’s historic uprisings, Florida Democrats see what many are calling a “golden opportunity”: a chance for President Joe Biden to help bring democracy to the island and, as a result, attract the Hispanic voters that he hemorrhaged eight months ago.
“This is a ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ opportunity,” said state Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat from Miami who represents a district that Trump won. “We need to be the beacon of hope. There are people in Cuba protesting waving the American flag. That has never happened. We need to understand the moment we’re living in.”
Yet there are worries Biden could blow it by being too slow to move, too timid in his actions or by embracing the messaging from progressives who have been reluctant to denounce the Cuban regime in strong, unqualified and moralistic terms.
As the protests erupted across Cuba, Biden sent a message marked by its unambiguous language: the United States stands with those yearning to be free from the island’s “authoritarian regime.”
But others in his administration — and his party — were more circumspect in their choice of words. A State Department official suggested the demonstrations were out of “concern about rising COVID cases/deaths & medicine shortages,” but made no mention of the dictatorship’s repression. The chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, New York’s Gregory Meeks, made a similar statement that also said nothing of the totalitarian government in Cuba, as did Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Those subtle distinctions in language — such as explicitly calling out the dictatorial practices of the Cuban government before anything else — make a world of difference in battleground Florida.
To that end, the Florida Democratic Party’s resolutions committee approved a measure Tuesday night calling for “additional sanctions against the leaders of the failed socialist-communist regime.”
“People are taking to the streets chanting ‘Libertad’ [liberty!]. They’re not chanting ‘Vacuna!’ [vaccines!],” said Javier Fernandez, a son of Cuban exiles and a former Democratic state representative from Miami who authored the resolution, which needs to be approved by the full party’s executive committee.
Fernandez said the party “needs to be clear about what we stand for.”
“There’s a concern by some in the party that if we condemn what happens in Cuba that we’re somehow making a moral judgment on the most progressive elements of our party who have described themselves as Democratic socialists,” he said. “That concern about offending certain progressive elements in the party is why you see statements of the kind from the likes of Congressman Meeks. It’s a false equivalence that only hurts Democrats here in the U.S. and in South Florida, in particular.”
Fernandez saw firsthand how the lack of clear messaging about socialism helped doom his state Senate campaign in November as Trump and down-ballot Republicans attracted an unprecedented percentage of voters with had family ties to Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua or Colombia, where nominally socialist governments or movements led to mass migrations to Florida, particularly in its largest county of Miami-Dade.
Biden won once-deep blue Miami-Dade by only 7 percentage points in 2020 compared with Hillary Clinton’s 29-point margin four years before. If Democratic candidates fail to carry Miami-Dade by more than single digits, it’s nearly impossible for them to win the state.
Trump’s performance was so strong in Florida — and he gained so much ground with Hispanic voters — that it led national Democrats to talk in earnest about focusing more in the future on emerging swing states like Arizona and Georgia.
Florida became such an afterthought for Biden’s political operation that his White House didn’t stage a public rally and media blitz in the state to announce its decision in March to grant temporary protected immigration status to Venezuelans who fled the Maduro regime, which is allied with Cuba’s government. In May, when Biden granted TPS to Haitians, Miami Democrats likewise felt his administration should have done more to capitalize on the announcement.
The failure to highlight the administration’s efforts on immigration policy confused and disappointed Florida Democrats, leading some to fear Biden was writing off the state.
“I don’t know why I had to find out about Venezuelan TPS from the news media,” said Taddeo. She said she wanted to make sure that Biden’s administration didn’t repeat the same mistake of underplaying its hand regarding Cuba.
Taddeo and Florida pollster Fernand Amandi, a Democrat and son of Cuban exiles, said Biden needs to come to Miami and articulate a clear policy to stand with the Cuban people and bring non-military international pressure to bear on the island’s government as it cracks down on demonstrators.
Amandi said it was a “golden opportunity” for both countries to change history.
“What happened this past weekend is what 12 previous U.S. presidents were waiting for: the uprising of the Cuban people themselves as they stand up against their communist overlords,” Amandi said. “President Biden’s initial statements on the events in Cuba have captured both the right policy and the right politics. However, the events in Cuba demand more than statements and the president is going to have to engage on this issue.”
So far, Miami Democrats have been pleased to see that the Biden administration remains less aligned with Meeks and more in step with his Democratic counterpart in the Senate, Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.), who is also the son of Cuban exiles and has made sure to focus on the totalitarian nature of the Cuban dictatorship that led to the protests on the island.
Biden has privately sought Menendez’s counsel regarding Cuba — a sharp contrast with former President Barack Obama, who secretly hashed out a rapprochement with Cuba that eased restrictions in 2015. Though the U.S. unilaterally eased relations with Cuba, the dictatorship didn’t change its behavior, leading to a backlash among Latin American exile voters in South Florida.
The delicate balancing act for Biden extends beyond the congressional divide within his party and touches on the tricky question of immigration and political asylum for Cubans. Under Obama, the U.S. ended the so-called wet foot/dry foot policy that essentially gave Cubans a pathway to citizenship if they landed on U.S. soil. Officials are now concerned that Cubans could leave en masse from the island — creating a crisis akin to the 1980 Mariel Boatlift.
On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told Cubans and Haitians to not come to the U.S. — an ironic message from an official who migrated from Cuba himself.
That approach concerned Florida Democrats who fear that the White House still doesn’t consider Cuba or Haiti — which is also in crisis after its president was assassinated — as high priorities. While the administration has been forced to pay more attention now, White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday declined to say how Cuba ranks as a priority, or whether the president would make good on his campaign trail promise to roll back Trump-era sanctions on the island.
Biden deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said Biden is in the process of fulfilling his promise to the Cuban people and pointed to Biden’s long record of opposing “the oppression and human rights abuses of Cuba’s communist, authoritarian government. This is about fundamental values that the President has long championed. He’s committed to forming his policies toward Cuba based on two principles: that standing up for democracy and human rights is paramount, and that Americans — especially Cuban-Americans — are the best ambassadors for freedom and prosperity in Cuba.”
The Biden administration also disputes criticisms of U.S. sanctions by noting that the Cuban government is able to get food and medical supplies, and it has refused to make its Covid-19 vaccine available for scientific peer review while also refusing to join an international consortium designed to get more people vaccinated worldwide.
Guillermo J. Grenier, a Florida International University professor who conducts a well-regarded poll of Cuban-American voters, said his research last year showed that a majority supported lifting sanctions on Cuba to help with the pandemic. Grenier said it’s good policy and politics — especially if Biden makes medical supplies and vaccines easier for Cuba’s people to receive.
Grenier and other Cuba experts noticed in the Trump years that new arrivals to America were becoming increasingly and unexpectedly Republican because their relatives on the island were spreading the word that the GOP knew how to fight the regime of Raul Castro and his successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel.
“You wonder why all these new arrivals are crazy for Trump, it’s because it starts there. People in Cuba say you need to go to the Republican Party because they know how to handle the Cuban government,” Grenier said. “But if Biden were to do that — to help the people in their time of need with vaccines, at least — they would remember that and he would immediately raise the profile of the Democratic Party, of himself and dim the bright orange of Trump.”
While Democrats have had mixed messaging in their recent response to Cuba, Republicans have been unified in calling for tougher sanctions and denouncing repression on the island.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a Miami native and son of Cuban immigrants, is up for reelection next year and has turned his Twitter account into a nonstop feed featuring video clips of Cuban protesters being beaten, reports of Venezuelan authorities rounding up political opponents and even the on-air arrest of a Cuban woman being interviewed by a Spanish TV station.
And Miami-based Republican Rep. Carlos Gimenez excoriated the State Department Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Julie Chung for her tweet about Covid-19 that failed to mention the dictatorship. Chung subsequently tweeted critical statements about repression of the Cuban and Venezuelan governments.
“Democrats are dead in the water in Florida, and statements like Meeks’ are why,” said Carlos Trujillo, a son of Cuban exiles and former Republican state legislator who served as ambassador to the Organization of American States. “We’ve labeled them as socialists and communist sympathizers. And they deny it. Well, prove it. They can’t.”
Passion is so intense in Miami’s exile community that people have taken to the streets in solidarity with the Cuban people, and the city’s moderate Republican mayor, Francis Suarez, has said that Biden should consider military options if the repression continues on the island.
“The thing folks who aren’t directly familiar with Miami need to remember — there is a roadmap to winning back Hispanics from exile communities, but it starts with recognizing for most down here, Cuba is an absolute pass-fail test,” said Steve Schale, a veteran of Obama’s presidential Florida campaigns who also leads a pro-Biden super PAC, Unite The Country.
Ric Herrero, executive of the pro-engagement Cuba Study Group, said calls for military action are dangerous and counterproductive. Herrero credited the uprising to the spread of social media and Obama-era engagement policies. He said it’s time for Biden to lead and sell his policy.
“What Trump did so well is show up and make people on the ground feel like they have a direct line to Washington,” Herrero said. “It’s not just adopting the right policy: you have to sell it. Why he won’t do that in South Florida is a mystery … It has been missed opportunity after missed opportunity to change the narrative in South Florida and hold the failures of the Trump policies accountable.”