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“Done with being hungry, unemployed, without water, without power”—as one 88-year-old protester put it—thousands of Cubans are, after 60 years of oppression, taking a brave stand against an authoritarian regime quick to crack down on dissent. As unprecedented street protests aimed at Cuba’s vengeful Communist government have continued, here in the comfortable confines of American politics, the Democratic Party risks blowing yet another opportunity to seize both the center and the moral high ground at a time when those have been largely abandoned by the GOP.
Who or what is stopping them from simply assuming this position as America’s mainstream, majority party? A small, but young and energetic and growing band of activists with outsized influence who support radical causes like CRT, “defund the police,” and socialism. (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, like Bernie Sanders, prefers the label of democratic socialist.)
On important issues as diverse as crime and infrastructure, Joe Biden has had to walk the line between appeasing this base and delivering on his promise of being a centrist. The result tends toward a mushy compromise that is passable, but during a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday, he delivered. "Communism is a failed system—a universally failed system. And I don’t see socialism as a very useful substitute. But that’s another story," he said.
Better late than never. The danger, as Marc Caputo warned, was that the president “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.”
Cuba is a wedge issue, and if you doubt this issue still resonates, think again. One of the reasons Biden became the Democratic nominee was Bernie Sanders’ past praise for Fidel Castro. Likewise, California Rep. Karen Bass’s 2016 praise of Castro (“the passing of the Comandante en Jefe is a great loss to the people of Cuba”) helped scuttle talk of her being Biden’s running mate. She walked that back in 2020, but it was too little and too late to resuscitate her vice presidential ambitions.
That’s not one but two high-profile Democrats (one of whom came within a whisker of being his party’s nominee and still retains enormous influence) who had high praise for a Communist country and its bloodthirsty dictator. As much as the dark and authoritarian strains of America’s right-wing extremists have been rightly scrutinized, the left harbors its fair share of radicals.
For example, before Biden’s comments, Black Lives Matter (specifically, the group operating under that name founded by Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza) posted a statement blaming the U.S. government for Cuba’s problems that Cuban citizens are bravely taking to the streets to protest.
“Black Lives Matter condemns the U.S. federal government’s inhumane treatment of Cubans and urges it to immediately lift the economic embargo,” it reads. They are literally blaming America first.
To be sure, U.S. sanctions are squeezing Cuba (along with COVID and reduced support from Venezuela). But the fundamental problem is the communist system’s failure to deliver on its utopian promise by modernizing its economy. Cuba, not America, is responsible for the disastrous decision to develop their own COVID vaccine (instead of joining COVAX, the World Health Organization’s sharing program). By blaming America, progressives are parroting the communist regime’s own propaganda talking points even as lots of mainstream Democrats—like Rep. Gregory Meeks—are using the protests as an opportunity to call on the U.S. to end sanctions.
So why are they doing it?
Some of the radicals truly believe America is to blame. For others, it’s a political calculation. “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,” Javier Fernandez, a former Democratic state representative who is the son of exiles, told Caputo. “That concern about offending certain progressive elements in the party is why you see statements of the kind from the likes of Congressman Meeks.”
Squeezing Biden and the Democrats from the other direction, many Floridians are emotionally invested in these Cuban protests. “‘Where is Biden? Where is Biden,’ shouted Cuban-American demonstrators Tuesday in Tampa,” according to the Miami Herald.
This isn’t just a few protesters who can be easily ignored. There’s a good argument to be made that Elian Gonzalez defeated Al Gore in 2000. Since that time, though, Democrats talked themselves into the notion that Florida had changed, that Cuban Americans weren’t as important a slice of the Florida Hispanic community as they once were, and that younger Cuban Americans have different political sensibilities. Just as 2016 shattered notions about the “coalition of the ascendant,” meaning they could ignore working-class whites, this assumption about Cuban Americans seems premature at best.
A lot of emphasis has been put on Biden saying the right things, but while a Democratic president and party expressing solidarity with the protesters is helpful, it is not sufficient. The real test is action. One obvious thing America should do is open our doors to Cuban refugees, yet the Biden administration is warning that “if you take to the sea, you will not come to the United States.” Would the Biden administration really turn away Cubans fleeing persecution, and risk the political fallout that could entail? We may find out.
A more helpful and proactive idea comes from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is now calling on Biden to help restore Cuba’s internet access, which has been blockaded by the regime; this action alone would be instrumental in helping protest organizers and allowing the world to see any retribution. On Thursday, Biden gave a nod in this direction, saying: “We're considering whether we have the technological ability to reinstate that access.”
Will Biden answer the call? His decision will have both moral and political implications. The stakes are high.
As Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago puts it, “Before Trump, Cuban Americans twice voted for Obama. If Democrats bungle the bloodshed in Cuba, they will forfeit Cuban-American voters forever—and they will deserve it.”