Can Joe Biden's Florida Team Make Cuba 'An Opportunity That's Fallen Into Their Laps'?

As Cubans marched and protested against the government regime this past weekend at a scale not seen since the Cuban revolution of 1959, the thorny political way forward began to come into view originating from the heartbeat of the Cuban-American community, in Florida.

The Biden administration statement and immediate Republican response from Senator Marco Rubio were just a preview of how domestic politics is inextricably linked to U.S.-Cuba foreign policy.

"We stand with the Cuban people and their clarion call for freedom and relief from the tragic grip of the pandemic and from the decades of repression and economic suffering to which they have been subjected by Cuba's authoritarian regime," President Joe Biden said in a statement, adding that the Cuban people are bravely asserting "fundamental and universal rights," including the right of peaceful protest and the right to freely determine their own future.

"The United States calls on the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves," Biden added.

Rubio, who had been assailing the Biden administration for its response and lack of a statement from Biden Sunday night, made clear that he viewed the president's statement as insufficient.

"You forgot something," Rubio tweeted, adding "socialist and communist" to the Biden statement on Cuba's "authoritarian" regime.

Like many others who spoke with Newsweek, Fernand Amandi, Obama's former campaign pollster on the Latino vote, who is Cuban-American, stressed that the political fallout of what is happening in Cuba won't be known for a while.

But he said the question is how will the Biden administration react and handle an "opportunity that has fallen in their laps."

"These unprecedented demonstrations have never happened in the last 62 years," Amandi said. "If they can be seen as giving more oxygen to the movement, helping or influencing what is happening, there could be political rewards for that type of leadership."

Those rewards would include concrete steps by the White House to show distance from socialism labels and "rebrand how the Democratic Party is perceived nationally as a party of freedom and democracy and the protecting of human rights at home and around the world," Amandi said.

He called on Biden to give a speech in Florida.

"Speaking as a Cuban-American I would like to see President Biden come to the heart of the Cuban-American community, which is south Florida, to explain what this moment means and represents," Amandi said, "and show that what he isn't able to do militarily he can do rhetorically to inspire Cubans in Cuba and in Florida."

While the way forward is uncertain, with political operatives floating the possibility the demonstrations could become Cuba's version of the early 2010 "Arab Spring" uprisings that led to regime changes, the political nature of any response would be unmistakable, with Republicans increasingly labeling Democrats socialists and communists, particularly in Florida.

Rubio has used Twitter to amplify the protests coming from Cuba, noting that no one in Cuba has guns, but "heavily armed socialist shock troops" were marching in Havana. He used that to return to an argument he has been making over the last 24 hours, tweeting a message to Biden that Cuba will threaten a mass migration of Cubans echoing the "Mariel boatlift" which saw more than 100,000 Cubans come to the United States.

The political blowback, however, is not just limited to where the crisis in Cuba will go from here, but also to what spurred it in the first place.

News reports have said the protests were spurred by lack of COVID-19 vaccines, health care, and food shortages. In a viral Twitter thread, America Valdes shared an interview with Sarah Naranjo, an elderly Cuban lady whom said she took to the streets because she's tired of being hungry, has no water, and needs surgery on her eye, but there is no one to perform the surgery.

On Twitter, the State Department's Julie Chung repeated the assessment from news reports, saying protesters were expressing "concern about rising COVID cases/deaths & medicine shortages." While Chung previously served in the Trump administration, Rubio called it a "ridiculous" tweet.

In demonstrations that included marching to the Malecon promenade in the capitol of Havana Sunday, protesters could also be heard chanting "Down with the dictatorship" and "We want liberty."

For his part, Cuba's president Miguel Diaz-Canel appears to understand the threat to his government, and publicly chastised the U.S., saying it is behind "salaried" protesters.

American politicians were quick to fire back.

"I would bet money that the Cuban regime are scared sh**less because this has never happened," a Republican Senate aide told Newsweek, adding that the uprising shows the importance of the internet as well. "Diaz-Canel says the United States is instigating YouTubers to do this," the source added. "Give me a break."

Democrats, like Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz, are wary of how quick the issue of Cuba has been politicized, and even some Republicans note that both parties want freedom in the communist country.

"It would be absolutely unacceptable for me to politicize an issue like this," Diaz told Newsweek. "As a Cuban-American who was born there, whose father was a political prisoner, I've felt the pain of my family because I was too young to remember."

For those reasons many Florida operatives on both sides were hesitant to offer their view of how the crisis will shake out politically in the state because they said doing so would be risky in a state where Cuban-Americans of both parties bear familial scars.

One recalled a debate between former congressmen Joe Garcia and Carlos Curbelo in 2014 where Cuba wasn't the point of many of the debate questions, but it informed many of the answers from them, because both men's families fled Fidel Castro's Cuba.

"The person who tries to politicize this is the one who runs risk because both Democrats and Republicans believe in the need for freedom in Cuba at its core," a Florida Republican operative told Newsweek. "We may have disagreements on how to go about it but this is not the time to try to win political points in the mind of people in Florida."

cuba protests
People take part in a demonstration to support the government of the Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana, on July 11, 2021. - Thousands of Cubans took part in rare protests Sunday against the communist government, marching through a town chanting "Down with the dictatorship" and "We want liberty." Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images