The spontaneous protests that exploded in dozens of small towns and cities throughout Cuba on July 11 have largely disappeared from the streets of the island. But in South Florida — with Miami’s Cuban-American community as the backdrop — the anti-government demonstrations in Cuba have given U.S. Republicans a platform to attack Democrats largely unchallenged, offering an early window into the GOP’s playbook ahead of 2022 elections.
For weeks, notable Florida Republicans from Gov. Ron DeSantis to Miami Reps. Maria Elvira Salazar, Carlos Gimenez and Mario Diaz-Balart have spoken in front of riled up audiences throughout Miami, calling on President Joe Biden to escalate actions against the Cuban regime.
Wednesday brought the latest in a string of appearances as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy attended an evening rally at Versailles, the iconic Cuban restaurant on Calle Ocho in Little Havana. The rally that followed, which an estimated 500 people attended, had been advertised by local Cuban-American personalities, including Alex Otaola, a conservative influencer with a large following on YouTube and Facebook.
To a cheering crowd, Salazar lead a chant of “Thank you” to McCarthy. Giménez welcomed him to the stage as the “future Speaker of the House.”
“I am here for one reason and one reason only: freedom for Cuba,” McCarthy said, making an “L” with his fingers, the hand-signal for freedom. “We have a very clear message for Mr. President: this is not about Covid, it’s about communism... This is not a moment, it’s a movement.”
He mentioned a group of activists he met with earlier the same night inside Versailles. One man, McCarthy said, whose mother and father are in Cuba and are currently sick with Covid-19, told him “do not send them medicine — send them freedom.”
McCarthy arrived about 7 p.m., and was immediately rushed into Versailles to a meeting that was closed to the press. He’s expected to meet with local Cuban-American and Central American leaders on Thursday.
Putting pressure on Cuban regime
Republicans in Florida increasingly see the historic protests in Cuba as further evidence that the embargo and harsher sanctions put in place by the Trump administration were justified and have contributed to putting Cuba’s communist regime on life support.
Florida Republicans, who have pushed for increased pressure against the Cuban regime for decades, also see the moment as both an opportunity to slam communism on the island and double down on the dramatic rightward shift in Miami-Dade County by Cuban Americans and other Hispanic voters that buoyed the GOP during the 2020 election.
The GOP messaging push on Cuba is part of a larger anti-socialism narrative that proved successful in U.S. House races in 2020 and is likely to play a role in Republicans’ strategy to take back the House.
“From a national standpoint, you have somebody like Kevin McCarthy coming to Miami, talking to local leaders,” said Republican state Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, a Miami native and daughter of Cuban immigrants. “If this issue continues to be a top of mind issue for Republicans and conservative leaders, if there is a shift [in Congress] in a year and a half, there could be enough pressure at that point to do something substantive.”
In addition to McCarthy, Indiana U.S. Rep. Victoria Spartz, a first-year Republican lawmaker who grew up in Ukraine, and Rep. Mark Green of Tennessee, the top Republican on the House subcommittee responsible for Cuba policy, were scheduled to appear.
Democrats who are in favor of the Cuban embargo like New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez and South Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz haven’t gotten prime-time coverage for their Cuba policy work as Salazar and Sen. Marco Rubio did during a recent Sean Hannity special on Fox News from Versailles.
Instead, a smattering of Democratic groups have launched small-scale digital campaigns to remind Cuban-Americans that the party supports them. The latest is a 30-second digital ad from Nuestro PAC called “Libertad,” a Spanish-language ad highlighting Biden’s actions to support Cubans on the island.
“The Republicans see a real path to taking back the House,” said Mike Hernandez, a political analyst for Telemundo 51 and a Democratic strategist. “It’s not just that history is on their side, but it’s also that, look, they’ve got a five-seat disadvantage in the House. Two of the most important seats to make Leader McCarthy into Speaker McCarthy are in South Florida, [congressional districts] 26 and 27.”
Manny Diaz, chair of Florida’s Democratic Party, said in a statement that while he was not surprised to learn of McCarthy’s visit to Miami, the minority leader is “one of the least credible voices possible when it comes to championing the ideals of democracy.”
“His craven attempts to undermine the House’s investigations into the violent insurrection targeting Congress on January 6th, and his vote to overturn the results of the 2020 elections are all the evidence we need that Kevin McCarthy’s words in support of democracy have no weight whatsoever,” said Diaz’s statement, adding that the strategy to speak of democracy to Cubans in Miami over “a pastelito and a colada” has become a “sad cliché.”
Protesters against Biden, for a variety of causes
Still, some Republican supporters in Miami have continued to call for Biden to take more aggressive steps against the Cuban regime, including military intervention. The rallies have also attracted groups from other parts of the country to advocate for other conservative causes.
Michael Shibler, 39, who attended Wednesday’s rally, held a poster reading “Honk Against Communist Oppression,” and gathered signatures for the Catholic group TFP, “Tradition Family Property,” supporting freedom in Cuba that now total 70,000, according to the group’s site.
From Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he said he’s spent the past week in Miami trying to push Biden to “do something.” What exactly he wants the White House to do was unclear.
For Jana Lopez, a Cuban activist at the scene, the question is simple — she’s calling for military intervention.
“I don’t believe in what Biden is doing,” Lopez said, calling the president a “communist”. While many who have attended Cuba solidarity rallies in the past few weeks have said they want the president to make an appearance in Miami, Lopez disagreed.
Rodriguez, the state senator, said she does fret at the politicization of the Cuban protests, which were largely sparked by food and medicine shortages, and a lack of access to vaccines against COVID-19. But she said she believes there’s also an opportunity for Republicans to pressure the Democratic president.
“I really think Republicans and Democrats alike have endured the pain of Cuba’s communist regime or have relatives who currently live in that oppressive regime,” said Rodriguez. “To make it a partisan issue I think is not right.”
Posturing about Cuba policy
Republicans have largely ignored President Biden’s decision to keep Donald Trump’s Cuba policy changes in place and additional sanctions imposed after the July 11 protests. Instead, Miami Republicans and their colleagues across the country have pointed out continuing divides within the Democratic Party on Cuba, where prominent progressives like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called for an end to the U.S. embargo after the protests.
Four days after the protests in Cuba began, McCarthy announced the creation of a “Leader’s Advisory Team on Cuba.” The group, which is meeting in Miami on Thursday, is composed of Cuban-American House Republicans from Miami and elsewhere, along with Florida Sens. Rick Scott and Rubio.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has not announced anything similar for House Democrats, and Democratic leadership blocked a proposal from Florida Democrat Stephanie Murphy to provide additional “democracy funding” for Cuba in a State Department spending bill last week, prompting outrage from Murphy, Wasserman Schultz and New Jersey Cuban-American Rep. Albio Sires.
Republican state Senator Ileana Garcia, who was also born in Miami to Cuban exiles, said she does believe Republican lawmakers in Washington “speak very highly” of Democrats like Menendez and Wasserman Schultz when it comes to Cuba policy.
“They’re very appreciative that they can count on the Democrats on that. And I think that’s the part that’s important,” she said. But, she conceded, the rhetoric in Miami when it comes to Cuba has been highly partisan.
“It’s a playbook that’s used on both sides,” she said. “I think we need to move away from the playbook. Me, as a Republican, I’m asking the Democrats to please step up. We’re grateful for the ones who do step up.“
Aymee Rosquete, 33, who came to the rally with her husband and toddler said she was thankful for McCarthy’s visit.
“I’m thankful that somebody’s listening to us,” she said. “But I hope they’re actually listening to us and not coming for the publicity.”
As the crowd of around 500 waited before the stage set up in the Versailles parking lot, a child led the crowd in a cheer for the “end of communism” in Cuba. Between speeches by activists, those gathered joined in song, and one protester made his way through the crowd on a bike, waving a “Trump 2024” flag.