By MARC CAPUTO
MIAMI — Cuba policy isn’t just a Miami political issue any more.
In the days after the historic uprisings, Cuba has emerged as a central focus among Republican presidential contenders who have elevated the calls for democracy on the island to a top-tier issue in the 2024 shadow primary.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has speculated that the Biden administration told Cubans not to come to the United States because they tend to vote Republican. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton called out Major League Baseball for its silence about the push for democracy on the island in light of the decision to cancel its all-star game in Georgia after the state tightened voting restrictions.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott have called on Cuban military leaders to rise up against the regime. They’ve also sharpened contrasts with the Biden White House by calling for a plan to beam wireless internet access into Cuba.
The presidential prospects have seized the opportunity to differentiate themselves in a crowded field, but they are also using the moment to unify the GOP behind themes nearly everyone in the party can agree on, ranging from a hard-line anti-communism message to a critique of Biden administration foreign policy to attacks on the progressive left.
“Cuba is no longer just a South Florida issue,” said Richard Grenell, the former director of national Intelligence and Trump campaign surrogate.
“It’s less of an I-told-you-so moment — it’s that Republicans have been right all along. We’ve been talking about these issues for a very long time,” said Grenell, who was involved in secret negotiations to get Venezuela’s strongman, Nicolas Maduro, to leave office. “I don’t believe there’s a new moment, a pouncing or a quick shift. I have seen the slow momentum among the first- and second-generation Americans coming here from Latin America.”
White House contenders aren’t the only Republican pols elevating Cuba. In Virginia, Cuban American state attorney general candidate Jason Miyares has spoken out against the repression on the island. In Ohio’s crowded GOP Senate race, Bernie Moreno, who was born in Colombia, pulled in the largest fundraising haul of the field based on a strong anti-socialism message.
But Florida, a must-win state for Republican presidential candidates, remains the center of gravity for Cuban policy and politics. It’s a vestige of the sizable Cuban American population in Miami-Dade County, as well as Hispanics with roots in other Latin American countries where socialism is anathema to many exiles and immigrants.
For years, Cuban Americans were a reliable Republican voting bloc, but they began drifting more toward Democrats just before and after President Barack Obama won and governed for two terms, at the end of which he thawed relations with Cuba.
President Donald Trump then reversed course, slapped new sanctions on Cuba, elevated the voices of Cuban exiles at his GOP nominating convention last year and redesignated the totalitarian government as a state sponsor of terror.
His policies struck a chord with newer and older Cuban immigrants as well as Venezuelan, Nicaraguan and Colombian Americans, who escaped leftist movements and governments in Latin America and flocked to the GOP banner last year in Florida.
That surge surprised Democrats, who failed to heed the voices in the Florida party warning about the powerful influence of the issue of socialism on the Latino electorate in the state — a GOP message that DeSantis test-drove in his 2018 win in the gubernatorial race against progressive Andrew Gillum.
Republicans and Democrats alike realized that the issue cut across demographic lines, leading the GOP to expand its use nationally.
“It’s hard to put into words how maddening it is that the socialism thing was allowed to fester without immediate pushback,” said Steve Schale, a founder of the pro-Biden Unite the Country super PAC and top Florida campaign adviser to Obama.
Socialism was such a potent issue in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary in Florida that Unite The Country issued a mailer that referred obliquely to sympathetic comments Sen. Bernie Sanders made about Cuba. “We don’t need another revolution,” the mailer read.
Schale said that political leaders need to do more than just pay lip service in counties like Miami-Dade; they need to show up and be seen as credible voices on Cuba.
“Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton took a reliably narrow Democratic county and turned it into a juggernaut, but they did that by meeting voters where they are, while also recognizing the struggles of the immigrant story and pushing back against disinformation,” he said.
Aware of the toxicity of socialism accusations in the eyes of many Americans, Biden made sure to tag Sanders with the label during the primary and stressed at one point in the general election that “I beat the socialist. That’s how I got elected. That’s how I got the nomination.”
While Biden had pledged to roll back Trump’s sanctions on Cuba, he hasn’t yet done so — and his administration won’t give a timeline for any announcements about the island. He has called for an end to the violence in Cuba and denounced the communist regime and its brutal quashing of the uprisings on the island, but others have tempered that clarion call by also denouncing the U.S. embargo, a worrying division for Democrats.
“A vibrant active and key part of the Democratic base is generally friendly toward the regime and hostile towards U.S. policy regarding the regime,” Rubio said in an interview. He called the Cuba issue “an internal problem” for Democrats who “don’t want to take it on or say as little as possible and check the box and say, ‘Yeah that’s terrible what’s happening in Cuba’ because they don’t want to get beat up by the liberal progressive Marxist base.”
The Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation last week went a step above by denouncing the U.S. embargo while saying nothing about the repression on the island. The statement, posted on Instagram, proved so controversial that the organization disabled comments as people trashed the group.
A spokesperson for the group wouldn’t comment on the record but told POLITICO that its opposition to the repression on the island “goes without saying.”
“Our priority is really anchoring our stance against the U.S. embargo against Cuba that denies supplies and money and trade with Cuba, that has been about an attempt to bring around regime change in Cuba. So we did not want to lose sight of that,” the spokesperson said, while dismissing “right-wing propaganda” in favor of the embargo.
To conservatives, it was confirmation of their assertion that the organization — whose founders have said they were trained Marxists — was a socialist-communist front group affiliated with the push to teach “Critical Race Theory” in schools and calls to “defund the police.”
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, another potential GOP presidential contender in 2024, joined others from his party in calling out the group on Twitter, saying “Here’s the Black Lives Matter org supporting the brutal & oppressive dictatorship in #Cuba.”
John McLaughlin, a pollster for Trump who also has worked extensively in South Florida, said the elevation of Cuba into an international news story will only heighten the contrasts between the parties.
“It’s a fundamental conflict between freedom versus communism,” he said. “You have a growing Marxist-socialist view in the Democratic Party, and it’s a perfect issue for Republicans. It’s not just Cuban voters, Venezuelan voters, Colombian, Nicaraguan voters. Whether it’s South Florida, South Texas or even the South Bronx, there are people who escaped socialism. And they don’t want it here.”
Maya King contributed to this report.