Cuba is suddenly posing a growing challenge for President Joe Biden that could have political ramifications for him in the battleground state of Florida.
And Republican leaders in the state have pounced on his tepid response.
Cuban demonstrators have taken to the country’s streets in recent days to lash out at the communist government and protest food shortages and high prices.
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Biden is facing increased pressure from Republican lawmakers for his administration to step up support of Cuban demonstrators.
“Sixty-two years of socialist dictatorship have led to this historic moment,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-F.L., told The Daily Signal. “However, President Biden’s silence over the weekend — during the critical early stages of these demonstrations — as well as his administration’s absurd initial charge that these protests were attributable to COVID-related grievances, have failed to acknowledge the magnitude of the moment.”
How the Biden administration handles the crises looms large in the background of electorally rich Florida.
Biden lost the state in 2020 to Donald Trump, as Republicans improved their performance while paying special attention to courting the state’s large Cuban American population and other immigrant voters, noted Susan MacManus, a Florida political analyst and professor emerita at the University of South Florida.
“The caution Biden is showing reflects the poor showing in 2020 and a desire not to repeat it,” said MacManus. “Democrats learned in 2020 that country of origin is a much more powerful voting cue in Florida than historical voting affiliation, and Trump’s hammering on socialism proved to be an effective message.”
The White House said a review of its Cuba policy remains underway.
To be sure, U.S. efforts to press for regime change have had their fair share of failures over the years: the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, CIA-backed assassination attempts on Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and sanctions that inflicted pain but never produced the ultimate goal of ending communist rule.
“We’re going to be taking a close look at what has and has not worked in the past, and unfortunately in the case of Cuba, there may be more that has not worked than what has worked,” Price said.
This week, Cuban police have been out in force as President Miguel Díaz-Canel has accused Cuban Americans of using social media to spur a rare outpouring of weekend protests. The demonstrations in several cities and towns were some of the biggest displays of antigovernment sentiment seen in years in tightly controlled Cuba, which is facing its worst economic crisis in decades.
There are political crosscurrents for Biden as he addresses both situations.
On Cuba, the political right in the U.S. has accused Biden — who said as a presidential candidate that he would revert to Obama-era policies that loosened decades of embargo restrictions on Havana — of not being supportive enough of Cuban dissidents.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-F.L., said the anti-communist protests were a rare opportunity that Biden was squandering.
Hispanic Florida voters “know that the instability in Latin America starts with Cuba,” Scott told The Daily Signal. “This is an opportunity to stop the spread of socialism. Cuba is the reason for the instability in the region, and why we’ve had problems in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and now Colombia.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are unhappy that Biden has yet to reverse Trump’s hard-line approach to the island’s communist government as his administration carries out its review of Cuban policy.
Trump in a statement criticized Biden’s past promises to loosen restrictions on Cuba.
“Don’t forget that Biden and the Democrats campaigned on reversing my very tough stance on Cuba,” Trump said.
Rubio and Rep. Carlos Gimenez, R-F.L., also called on Biden to aid the protesters, including by making free satellite internet access available on the island to subvert the Cuban government’s effort to stop activists from broadcasting their messages on social media to the world.
Gimenez said in an interview that simply maintaining the status quo is not enough at a moment when the island is seeing some of the most intense protests in more than 60 years — what Biden himself referred to as a “clarion call for freedom.”
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Biden lost Florida by about double the margin by which Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton there in 2016.
Trump was helped in part by narrowing the Democrats’ margin of victory in population-rich Miami-Dade County by nearly 13 percentage points. Gimenez and another freshman lawmaker of Cuban descent, Maria Elvira Salazar, picked up Democratic-held seats as Trump and Republicans focused on courting Cuban Americans, an important voting bloc in the state.
The majority of Cubans in Florida supported Trump over Biden, 58% to 41%, according to AP VoteCast. The margin was nearly reversed among other Hispanic voters in the state, who were more likely to support Biden than Trump, 59% to 40%.
“Biden is no fool,” said Gimenez. “It’s not just the Cuba issue, it’s the whole issue of socialism and communism and censorship that’s shifted the people of Miami-Dade over to the right. The problem that the president has is the extreme parts of his own party seem to be driving the agenda, and that he just can’t escape right now.”
White House spokesman Chris Meagher defended the president and said Biden, dating back to his days in the Senate, has been a fierce critic of the Castro regime and is committed to Cuban human rights.
“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,” Meagher said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article