Democrats see an opportunity in Cuban protests

Democrats have historically struggled to appeal to Cuban American voters amid fears of socialism.

Eric Garcia
Tuesday 13 July 2021 23:10
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As protests mount in Cuba, Latino Democrats see an opportunity to appeal to voters who hail from the island and their descendants, who have long voted Republican.

The demonstrations mounting in Cuba are the biggest that the nation, which has been under communist rule for decades, has seen in three decades. President Joe Biden threw his support behind demonstrators on Monday, saying the protests were “a clarion call for freedom”.

“I don’t think we’ve seen anything like this protest in a long long time, if, quite frankly, ever,” Mr Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who was also vice president during Barack Obama’s attempts at normalisation relations with Cuba, told reporters.

But Biden and other Democrats might also be motivated by electoral politics. Cuban Americans have long identified as Republicans, which makes them an important constituency in perpetual swing state Florida, where many exiles arrived once they escaped the regime under now-deceased leader Fidel Castro.

After Mr Obama made historic inroads with the community during his 2012 re-election campaign, he attempted to normalise relations between the two countries and even visited Cuba. But President Donald Trump placed new restrictions as soon as he came into office and ahead of his re-election campaign, which paid off as Mr Trump improved his performance in South Florida and helped him carry the state.

“It’s been an Achilles heel for Democrats,” said Chuck Rocha, who runs Nuestro PAC, echoing these sentiments and saying the Cuba protests are “the perfect issue to start cutting into the vote in Florida”.

“I’ve been telling Democrats to be out front on this,” he said. “Especially folks who want to run for office.”

Rocha worked on Sen Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign in 2020, which on one end won many Latino voters, but also made Democrats uneasy when he praised the Castro regime’s literacy programme. Similarly, the Republican National Convention featured Maximo Alvarez, who emigrated from Cuba and warned about the dangers of socialism.

But Latino Democrats see Mr Biden’s rhetoric as a way to make inroads with the community.

“He talked about ‘this is about the right to protest and the right for freedom,’” José Dante Parra, who worked for Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the Obama re-election campaign, said.

Mr Parra also noted that despite the accusations, the chairman of the state party, Manny Diaz, is a Cuba native.

“The whole accusation of socialism doesn’t stick here,” Mr Parra said.

Rep Darren Soto, who represents central Florida, added: “We Democrats govern over the most successful capitalist country in the world. People can lie until they are blue in the face, and after two years of a strong performance, I think those arguments are going to fall on their own.”

Even non-Cuban or Latino Democrats have also shown support for Cuban protesters. Rep Val Demings, who is running for the Democratic nomination to challenge Sen Marco Rubio next year, tweeted her support for the protests in both English and Spanish.

“I strongly support the peaceful protesters in Cuba as they struggle for their right to create their own future. I condemn all violent repression of the Cuban people by the current regime,” Mrs Demings tweeted.

Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster based in Miami, said there is an opportunity for Mr Biden in the protests.

“If he can be seen as a proactive leader and catalyst to help do everything in his power as leader of the free world and support the efforts on the island, he has the possibility to redefine and recalibrate the relationship between Democratic Party and a critical state,” Mr Amandi said.

And there is evidence Democrats have work to do. Earlier this year, Mr Amandi’s firm Bendixen & Amandi International showed 66 per cent of Cuban-American voters opposed returning to the Obama-era policy toward the nation, Politico reported at the time.

“In addition, it was important for him to keep the sanctions in place that he inherited which are part of the reason Cuba finds itself in the situation,” Mr Soto said.

Mr Amandi, who is Cuban-American and whose family fled the regime, said Mr Biden has multiple opportunities to engage with the issue.

“He can also convene multilateral efforts to get aid and supply and humanitarian assistance to the island while also calling for restraint, but calling for the regime not to engage in acts of violence in the face of nonviolent protest,” he said.

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