TALLAHASSEE — Fidel Castro is once again casting a long shadow over U.S presidential politics.
The former Cuban president is a topic of derision for both political parties in Florida and Republicans here used him on Saturday to bash Karen Bass, a California Democrat who is rising on Joe Biden’s vice-presidential shortlist.
“She will be the highest-ranking Castro sympathizer in the history of the United States government,” Sen. Marco Rubio said on a conference call organized by the Trump campaign to trash Bass.
Bass made numerous trips to Cuba dating back to the 1970s, and professed her sympathies when Castro died in 2016, a position that is politically poisonous in Miami, a key block of voters in a state central to President Donald Trump’s re-election bid. Much of the early focus when rumors emerged that Bass was rising among VP candidates was her description of Castro as “Comandante en Jefe” in a statement when he died, a phrase that translates to “commander-in-chief.”
“As Cuba begins nine days of mourning, I wish to express my condolences to the Cuban people and the family of Fidel Castro,” her office issued in a statement marking the Cuban leader’s death. “The passing of the Comandante en Jefe is a great loss to the people of Cuba.”
Her comments came at a time when then-President Barack Obama was trying to normalize relations with the island nation, including opening an embassy in Havana. Bass was part of the delegation that traveled to Cuba for the 2015 embassy opening.
Florida, and Miami specifically, represents a wide cross-section of Latinos, many of whom have fled or have family members who fled leftist Latin American regimes, including Castro’s Cuba. South Florida each election cycle features attempts by politicians to brand their political opponents as Castro sympathizers to score political points in a region where the issue is a bit of a third rail. But on paper, Biden has so far been tough for Republicans to cast as a socialist, but it has been the go-to messaging strategy for the GOP in recent years, and something deployed to sour voters on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ earlier this year. And there has also been early signs that some Florida Democrats are concerned about Bass’ positions on Cuba as well.
Bass has since tried to walk back that statement, saying last week on MSNBC “it’s certainly something that I would not say again.”
“I have always supported the Cuban people, and the relationship that Barack Obama and Biden had in their administration in terms of opening up relations,” she said.
On the Trump campaign call, Rubio said it’s not just about one comment.
“This is something that she will now want to deflect from, but I don’t believe in the last six decades that there has ever been anyone considered for the vice presidency … with this level of sympathy towards a Marxist regime,” Rubio said.
He said the fact Bass supporters are trying to make it about one comment is “insulting.”
The Biden campaign sidestepped Bass’ comment itself and said the Trump is hardly the person to paint anyone else as being too sympathetic to the world’s tyrants.
“There is one presidential candidate who has failed to meaningfully condemn dictators and expressed a willingness to meet with brutal dictator Nicolas Maduro and that is Donald Trump,” said Kevin Muñoz, a Florida spokesman for Biden for President. “Make no mistake: it is Donald Trump who failed to respond to this pandemic that is hurting Florida families as we saw another day of record deaths — and this is nothing but another attempt to distract from his failures.“
The 77-year-old former vice president and Delaware senator has developed a reputation as a moderate, something that worked against him in a Democratic primary against Sanders, whose progressive supporters loathed Biden’s brand of centrist politics. Biden beat Sanders with Hispanic voters in Florida’s March primary, which helped deflate the narrative from Sanders supporters that issues like Castro and socialism were losing sway with Florida’s Hispanic voters.
With Bass’ rise, however, Trump’s campaign sees an opening to further cast Biden as a “Trojan horse” for the type of policies pushed by Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive Republicans like to point to as evidence that the Democratic Party is being dragged too far to the left.
“This is how the socialist and communist revolutions begin to take hold of nations that were once prosperous and free. Nations like Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua,” Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, who is Cuban American, said on the Trump campaign call. “Taking advice from people like Bernie Sanders and AOC are really just the beginning.”
In Florida, the concern about Bass is bipartisan, as Democrats are worried putting her on the ticket would needlessly give Trump new ammunition in the nation’s largest swing-state. Many Florida Democrats also support another Biden short-lister: Val Demings, a Black former Orlando police chief who has been in Congress since 2016.
POLITICO has reported that Florida Democrats were concerned as soon as Biden began floating Bass’ names as a potential running mate.
“Praise like the one that was given by Bass at the time of Castro’s death is inconsistent with my family’s experience with what the regime did — and continues to do — to people on the island, which is suppress human rights, keep people under a totalitarian thumb and stifle economic growth,” Miami state Rep. Javier Fernandez, whose bid for an open state Senate seat could bring Democrats closer than ever to flipping control of the chamber, said in a June interview.
“The comments are troubling,” he added. “It shows a lack of understanding about what the Castro regime was about.”