How Biden’s Cuba Handling Weighs On Battleground Florida

By Katherine Doyle July 17, 2021 | Image Source: Washington Examiner

Protests roiling Cuba are throwing President Joe Biden’s drawn-out policy review into sharp relief, exposing divisions inside the Democratic Party over how to approach the humanitarian crisis and a crucial Cuban American electorate in Florida.

“Biden, who I supported and voted for, has the opportunity to make history and do the right thing,” said Sasha Tirador, a Democratic strategist in South Florida. “Otherwise, the Democrats can kiss the state of Florida goodbye for years to come.”

Tirador said she wants to see humanitarian assistance sent to the island, where the coronavirus is spreading rapidly and basic resources are in painfully short supply. “Let the world see how the Cuban government rejects the help,” Tirador said.

Biden’s response, some Democrats fear, has made him vulnerable to Republican attacks.

“The silence of the Biden administration is like music to the ears of the Republicans in Miami,” one Florida Democrat told the Washington Examiner. “He is falling into their hands.”

Outside of the White House, Cuban American activists urged Biden to intervene.

Dozens chanted, “Joe Biden estamos aqui!” telling the president on Wednesday, “We are here.”

Meanwhile, former Vice President Mike Pence declared, “Que viva Cuba libre!” in a speech at the Heritage Foundation across town.

Pence and former President Donald Trump swept Florida’s 29 electoral votes in the 2016 presidential election before carrying it again in 2020. And while Trump lost reelection, Florida became one of five states where the ticket earned a higher percentage of the two-party vote than in 2016.

South Florida’s hold on presidential elections is hard to miss.

Weighing an appointment to the Supreme Court bench one month before Election Day, Trump summed up his thinking thus: “Miami,” he said when asked about federal appeals court judge Barbara Lagoa, a Cuban American from Hialeah, the Miami city-suburb.

“I’ve heard incredible things about her. I don’t know her,” Trump said at the time. “She’s Hispanic and highly respected.”

“Miami,” he then said after a pause.

But despite forgoing Lagoa, Trump went on to win a decisive share of Florida voters.

A presumed 2024 hopeful, Nikki Haley was spotted sitting down with Mayor Francis Suarez in April. Hanging over the meeting was the potential for a joint presidential ticket, a source told Politico Playbook at the time.

Suarez is Cuban American and wildly popular, elected by Miami residents with an 86% approval rate. He said this month that military action might be needed in Cuba and urged Biden to consider airstrikes against the regime.

Biden has given few clues on the direction of his Cuba policy. As vice president under Barack Obama, the White House rolled back years of sanctions.

The Biden administration has been considering its approach, with no end date in sight. Press secretary Jen Psaki declined to say when the review would be completed.

Still, she said, the weekend protests “will obviously have an impact on how we proceed.”

Biden aides have been unable to confirm accounts of continued protests in Cuba through the end of the week due to an internet blackout. However, speaking to reporters Thursday, a senior administration official voiced concerns over individuals targeted by Cuban authorities.

There are several prominent activists among the missing, this official said.

“We saw when we came in that the Cuban regime was cracking down much more on the population, and that is bearing on how we are analyzing some of the possible policy responses,” he explained. “But it’s also something that we have to consult a broad set of stakeholders, including members of Congress and the community, and that’s something that we’ve been doing for four months.”

A refugee exodus is one concern for a White House vulnerable to attacks over its handling of asylum arrivals.

“Even before the protests erupted on Sunday, the number of Cubans leaving has become a top concern,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based forum on Western Hemisphere affairs. “If the crackdown continues and the economic situation continues to deteriorate, it’s conceivable that that could become a real problem.”

Shifter said two things drove the Trump administration’s Latin America policy. One was migration. “That was, I think, the main reason he got elected in 2016,” he said. And then “his policy on Venezuela, which was all Florida politics.”

Six months into the Biden administration, “the issues continue to be Florida politics and migration.”

Biden has tried to pursue a very different approach on both of those issues. Still, given the circumstances in Cuba, “it is extremely difficult to imagine him rolling back the Trump administration sanctions.”

Raul Martinez, a Democrat and former mayor of Hialeah, said he thought electoral politics were swaying Biden’s team. Twenty years ago, White House chief of staff Ron Klain led the bitterly disputed Florida recount for presidential candidate Al Gore.

“I’m not there in Washington,” Martinez caveated. “But what I understand is that it’s coming from the chief of staff. And I think that the chief of staff was burned back when Al Gore was running for president.”

A battleground state, Florida could be decisive in securing a presidential win. And with the country’s highest population of Cuban and Cuban American residents, South Florida’s Hialeah holds a powerful constituency.

This month, protesters in Hialeah have taken to the streets to urge support for U.S. intervention in Cuba.

Martinez pointed to a segment of the Cuban population who were vocal supporters of Trump and backed efforts to suffocate the Cuban regime through sanctions and other pressures. “Then you have the other people that are saying, ‘Listen, don’t let the people starve,'” he said.

On the campaign trail, Biden vowed to roll the sanctions back.

“They have had to weigh that,” Martinez said. “I would have gone with the people that probably voted for Biden. And he made a promise that he would lift some of those sanctions.”

Author: Katherine Doyle

Source: Washington Examiner: How Biden’s Cuba handling weighs on battleground Florida