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Florida Democrats, progressives and Black Lives Matter torn on Cuba response

Democrats are divided on Cuba. The White House has occupied a middle ground.
Protesters block Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa in solidarity with ongoing protests in Cuba on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. "If Cuba is on the streets, Tampa is too," they chanted in Spanish throughout the night.
Protesters block Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa in solidarity with ongoing protests in Cuba on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. "If Cuba is on the streets, Tampa is too," they chanted in Spanish throughout the night. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jul. 16

For four days, the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida deliberated and drafted a statement in response to historic anti-regime protests in Cuba.

On Thursday, the organization made its position public. The statement didn’t include support for the protests or call out violence from the Cuban military and police. Instead, it focused on a call to end the U.S. embargo.

“The DPCF demands the one thing that the United States has within its power to do right now that we know will immediately and measurably improve the lives of the Cuban people suffering on the island: President Biden, lift the Cuban embargo now!” the organization said.

Michael Calderin, a Cuban-American who serves as president of the Florida Progressive Caucus, said support for the protests and condemning police brutality weren’t included in the statement “because we didn’t feel it was necessary.”

“I would like to think the statement is very focused on what we can do to help the people in Cuba,” Calderin said. “That’s got to be number one. I understand our approach there is a bit different than most.”

Manny Diaz, a Cuban-American who is chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, said the state party was not consulted or made aware of the Progressive Caucus statement.

“It’s completely, factually incorrect and it plays into the communist playbook that the U.S. is always a bogeyman,” Diaz said, emphasizing that the Progressive Caucus’ position is not the position of the state party.

Dems divided three ways

The divide between Democrats on Cuba in the last week cuts three ways. South Florida Democrats in elected office have urged President Joe Biden to do more and use the protests to show Cubans the United States’ commitment to human rights and democracy. Progressives have called for an end to the embargo and criticized longtime U.S. opposition to Havana — while largely ignoring the protests on the streets and violent crackdowns in response. And the White House occupies a middle ground, condemning violence against protesters but continuing to say that policy changes are under review.

“It’s a missed opportunity by this group of Democrats to convey that while they oppose the U.S. embargo against Cuba that they also condemn the abhorrent treatment of Cuba’s communist leadership against the multiracial coalition of Cubans, young and old, who have never done this before,” said Mike Hernandez, a Democratic strategist and analyst at Miami’s Spanish-language Telemundo 51 TV station.

The Florida Progressive Caucus statement came a day after the national Black Lives Matter organization released a statement that did not voice support for protesters, many who are Afro-Cuban, facing brutal crackdowns from military and police forces.

“The people of Cuba are being punished by the U.S. government because the country has maintained its commitment to sovereignty and self-determination,” the group wrote on Instagram. “United States leaders have tried to crush this revolution for decades. Instead of international amity, respect and goodwill, the U.S. government has only instigated suffering for the country’s 11 million people, of which 4 million are Black and Brown.”

The Black Lives Matter statement ignored the three-year-old San Isidro Movement, a loose collective of artists — many of whom are Black — advocating for freedom of expression on the communist island. Their hunger strikes last year were a prelude to the much larger protests throughout the country, and the song “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life”) was part of the San Isidro Movement’s efforts to challenge the regime.

The song, which was produced and sung by a majority of Black artists in Cuba and abroad, questioned the Castro regime’s revolutionary slogan, “Patria o Muerte” (“Homeland or Death”).

Republicans and Democrats condemned the Black Lives Matter statement, with Republican Sen. Marco Rubio saying “my office stands ready to help the leaders of the Black Lives Matter organization emigrate to Cuba.”

Cuban-American Democratic pollster and consultant Fernand Amandi said the “disgraceful and erroneous words in the Black Lives Matter statement hurt the larger Black Lives Matter movement, which many of us support and continue to support.”

Democratic state Rep. Omari Hardy, a self-identified progressive from West Palm Beach who voiced public support for ending the embargo after Sunday’s protests, did not criticize Black Lives Matter but said calling out police violence in Cuba is important.

“I know my values and my values demand that I call out oppression when I see it,” said Hardy, who is running for U.S. Congress in a district that spans Broward and Palm Beach counties. “I will be consistent and call out police brutality and oppression wherever it occurs, that goes for police brutality and brutality that Cubans are falling victim to at the hands of the regime there.”

But he also said a lot of the criticism of groups like the Florida Progressive Caucus and Black Lives Matter on Cuba is coming from individuals who didn’t speak out during widespread protests in the United States last year.

“I don’t want to hear from Republicans or moderate Democrats who didn’t take to the streets with Black Lives Matter protests last summer that progressives and Black Lives Matter aren’t speaking forcefully enough about oppression in another country,” Hardy said. “They recognize brutality and oppression in other countries better than they can recognize it in their own.”

Congressional Democrats come together

The divide continues among the Democratic Party on Cuba. Prominent Democrats outside of Florida have voiced support for ending the embargo and Trump-era sanctions in the wake of protests while each of the state’s 10 Democrats in Congress signed on to a bipartisan resolution condemning the violence. The resolution was co-authored by Rubio, Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Miami Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. And the words of left-leaning groups like Black Lives Matter and the Florida Progressive Caucus turn into fuel for Republican attacks a year after Democrats performed poorly with Cuban-American voters in South Florida.

“The Biden administration is squandering a historic opportunity to stand for freedom and human rights in our home region,” former President Donald Trump said in a statement on Thursday. “I fought for Cuba, they didn’t.”

Hernandez said Democrats should treat the situation in Cuba as a humanitarian crisis, and that the Biden administration should swiftly allow remittances to be sent from the U.S. to Cuba along with making a public offer of COVID-19 vaccines.

“I think the frustration with the progressive Democratic caucus’ statement and the wait-and-see approach from the Biden administration is a political party trying to figure how to best address this when it’s not even about votes, it’s a humanitarian issue,” Hernandez said. “Make sure [the people] get access to remittances, offer the Cuban government access to vaccines. Force the regime to show the world they are heartless bastards if they reject vaccines that are lifesaving.”

And Amandi said Democrats should solely listen to the protesters in Cuba as they consider how best to respond to the loudest cry for democracy in a generation.

“The best way to explain the position is to listen what the courageous Cuban protesters on the island are saying themselves, which is not a call to the end to the embargo or more vaccines but the end of the Castro regime which has failed them and their families for over 60 years,” Amandi said. “That’s who we should be taking our cues from.”